CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Barack Obama criticized Venezuela's rights record and its ties to Iran and Cuba, telling a Venezuelan newspaper in comments published Monday that he is concerned about threats to democracy in the country.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has long feuded with Washington, though Obama's remarks, published by the newspaper El Universal, were some of his most critical to date.
"We're concerned about the government's actions which have restricted the universal rights of the Venezuelan people, threatened basic democratic values, and failed to contribute to the security in the region," Obama said in written responses to questions from the newspaper.
"In Venezuela, we have been deeply concerned to see action taken to restrict the freedom of the press, and to erode the separation of powers that is necessary for democracy to thrive," Obama said. "In all countries of the region, we want to see elections that are free and fair."
Chavez has repeatedly accused the U.S. of trying to meddle in Venezuela's affairs and even to overthrow him. He is up for re-election in October, seeking to extend his 13-year presidency.
The leftist leader has crusaded against U.S. influence in Latin America and has built close ties to several other antagonists of Washington around the globe. U.S. officials have expressed concern at Chavez's growing ties with Iran, and also have also said Venezuela isn't doing enough to combat terrorism or drug trafficking.
Obama said he hopes to eventually have a better relationship with Venezuela: "I look forward to the day when our governments can work more closely to advance the aspirations of our people."
Obama said the U.S. government doesn't intend to dictate how Venezuela should handle its international affairs. "I would argue, however, that the Venezuelan government's ties to Iran and Cuba have not served the interests of Venezuela or the Venezuelan people," Obama said.
Obama reiterated U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program and allegations that Iran's government supports terrorism.
"Ultimately, it is up to the Venezuelan people to determine what they gain from a relationship with a country that violates universal human rights and is isolated from much of the world," Obama said. "Here in the Americas, we take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously and we will continue to monitor them closely."
He noted that earlier this year the U.S. State Department slapped sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company for selling gasoline components to Iran.
Without mentioning Venezuela's leftist leader, Obama said "it's unfortunate that the Venezuelan government is often more interested in revisiting the ideological battles of the past than looking forward to the future."
There was no immediate response from the Venezuelan government.
Chavez and Obama shook hands at a 2009 summit, but since then relations have remained cool.
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has been without an ambassador since July 2010. Chavez rejected the U.S. nominee for ambassador, Larry Palmer, accusing him of making disrespectful remarks about his government. That led Washington to revoke the visa of the Venezuelan ambassador.