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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 04:44 GMT
Sign of hope in US-Venezuela ties
Hugo Chavez
Chavez has had nothing good to say about the US
After several years of rising diplomatic tension, Venezuela and the United States say they have made a positive start to improving relations.

The announcement came from the US ambassador in Caracas and Venezuela's foreign minister after a special meeting lasting several hours.

Relations have worsened since claims of US involvement in a coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez in 2002.

The White House has often accused Mr Chavez of harming regional stability.

'Small steps'

Thursday's talks could be a first step to thawing the icy relationship between Washington and Venezuela.

When the US ambassador, William Brownfield, and the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro, emerged from their talks, they were cautiously optimistic about the future of bilateral relations.

Both men stressed the need to start a dialogue.

"We need to learn how to walk first before we can run," Ambassador Brownfield told reporters. "We'll start with small steps first and then move forward bit by bit."

His Venezuelan host said the US had taken what he called "an historic decision" last week to fully recognise the landslide election victory of President Hugo Chavez.

This, he said, was a solid beginning for further talks. This kind of rhetoric is very different to the constant war of words both Venezuela and the US are by now accustomed to.

Since the United States' alleged involvement in an attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez in April 2002, relations between both countries have deteriorated sharply.

Mr Chavez has often accused President Bush, of being the Devil, a mass murderer and a drunk.

The White House has frequently retaliated by saying Venezuela's left-wing leader was threatening democracy in the region.

But now there appears to be a glimmer of hope that officials from Washington and Caracas can sit down and build bridges, even if their bosses don't agree on basic ideological principles.

Community service

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan parliament has approved a bill making service in the community obligatory for most Venezuelans.

The bill, which still needs to be signed into law by President Chavez, will require all Venezuelans aged 15 and 50 to work in social service projects at least five hours per month over a two-year period.

The bill also calls for the creation of a new institute which will identify projects for those who participate in the scheme to work on, with fines to be imposed against those who fail to participate in the work.

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