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Chavez Says He Hopes for Better Ties With U.S.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Saturday that he personally told a U.S. diplomat that he hopes relations with Washington will improve. Chavez made the comment before meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a bitter U.S. opponent.

Chavez said he ran into Thomas Shannon, head of the U.S. State Department's Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, this week at the inauguration of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. "Mr. Shannon approached and I greeted him," Chavez said in a speech to government officials and legislators. "We shook hands and I told him, 'I hope that everything improves.' "I'm not anyone's enemy," Chavez added.

U.S. officials have accused Chavez of authoritarian tendencies. U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said during an annual review of global threats this week that Venezuela's democracy is at risk under Chavez. Chavez met Ahmadinejad later Saturday.

The two leaders have become increasingly united by their deep-seated antagonism to Washington, and Chavez often cites the alliance as an example of the "multi-polar" world he seeks to counter U.S. dominance.

Officials refused to disclose details of their discussions or the purpose of the visit - Ahmadinejad's second trip to Venezuela in four months. State media coverage was minimal compared to Ahmadinejad's high-profile visit in September, and Chavez barely mentioned Ahmadinejad's trip in his four-hour speech Saturday.

Chavez, speaking during his annual state of the nation address in congress, called for the U.S. government to accept "the new realities of Latin America," as he vowed to stay in office beyond the end of his term in 2013.

Brushing aside restrictions that limit presidents to two consecutive terms, Chavez said that, "in 2013 I'm going to win elections again." Chavez has vowed to revise the constitution for the second time since he first took office in 1999 to eliminate presidential term limits. He has already removed a ban on consecutive terms.

Chavez also said he would immediately submit a request to congress for a law that would allow him to enact legislation by decree.

Chavez prompted a crash in Venezuelan share prices this week when he said he would seek special powers from congress to push through "revolutionary" reforms, including a string of nationalizations and unspecified changes to business laws.

Critics fear the announcement signaled a radical twist of Chavez's socialist movement toward the communist system of Cuba's Fidel Castro, Chavez's ally and mentor. "The Cubanization of the country, my friend, has turned on its engines," Miguel Sanmartin, a columnist for El Universal newspaper, said in article published Saturday.

"It took eight years for the big boss to admit the true nature of his hegemonic project," Sanmartin said. But recent events - including the nationalization drive and plans to prevent an opposition-aligned TV station from broadcasting on open airwaves - are revealing Chavez's moves toward a "fascist dictatorship," he said.

Chavez rejected those concerns Saturday, accusing the private media of spreading opposition lies, and said that after his re-election in December there was "no turning back" for his leftist movement. "We have received, without a doubt, the people's mandate to step on the
accelerator to advance without rest on this path toward a socialist Venezuela," he said.

Chavez also plans to strip the central bank of its autonomy. He said Saturday that about $8.4 billion of the bank's foreign reserves would soon be transferred into a state development fund. That was more than the $7 billion he stated previously.