US, Venezuela at odds on ambassador, Chavez powers

Long-standing tensions between United States and Venezuela are on the rise.

Last Updated: Dec 19, 2010, 09:47 AM IST

Caracas: Long-standing tensions between the United States and Venezuela are on the rise as Washington refuses to drop a nominee for ambassador opposed by President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez has vowed to reject President Barack Obama`s nominee, Larry Palmer, saying the diplomat`s critical remarks about his government have disqualified him. During his Senate confirmation process, Palmer suggested in written responses to questions that morale is low in Venezuela`s military, and also expressed concern about Colombian rebels finding refuge in Venezuela.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry called the US government`s insistence on appointing Palmer a "new provocation" in a statement on Saturday, saying he would not be welcome under any circumstances due to his "unacceptable conduct”.

Chavez later reiterated that stance in a speech to supporters that was broadcast on state television.

Palmer "disrespected Venezuela, a group of honourable generals from the armed forces, the government, the Venezuelan Constitution," Chavez said. "How could he be ambassador? He disqualified himself."

Addressing Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, the President said Palmer should be detained and deported if he tries to fly in to Caracas` international airport, in nearby Maiquetia.

"If he arrives at Maiquetia, grab him, Nicolas, grab him," Chavez said. "Buy Mr Palmer a coffee on me, and then `bye-bye.` He cannot enter this country."

US Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela said on Thursday that if the Senate approves Palmer as ambassador, he will soon be sent to Caracas.

"With Palmer`s arrival to Venezuela, we see an effort of both countries to try to establish a more fluid dialogue," Valenzuela told reporters in a conference call. "It has to be frank, because we won`t be in agreement on some things."

Chavez, whose economy relies heavily on US oil sales, initially expressed optimism that years of hostility between Venezuela and the US could ease under Obama, but the tensions have remained.

Chavez says the Obama administration has continued to try to undermine his government. State Department officials have increasingly voiced concerns about threats to personal freedoms and democracy in Venezuela.

The US government has been strongly critical of decree powers granted to Chavez on Friday by his congressional allies, shortly before a new National Assembly takes over next month with a larger opposition contingent capable of hindering approval of some types of laws.

US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said on Wednesday that Chavez "seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers”. Chavez dismissed those criticisms, saying that "it`s the empire and its permanent aggressions, its threats”.

It remains unclear how Chavez might respond if Palmer is confirmed and arrives in Caracas. In September, Chavez warned: "We wouldn`t allow him to enter Venezuelan territory."

Palmer also raised some particularly sensitive issues in his response to questions from Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana earlier this year, expressing concerns about Cuba`s influence within Chavez`s military and renewing 2008 accusations by the US Treasury Department, which accused three members of Chavez`s inner circle of helping Colombian rebels by supplying arms and aiding drug-trafficking operations. Palmer said he was concerned that two of them — General Hugo Carvajal and General Henry Rangel Silva — still hold high-ranking positions.

Chavez has strongly denied accusations that his close confidants are aiding Colombian rebels or drug traffickers, insisting such claims are part of a US smear campaign intended to discredit his socialist-oriented government.

"It`s well known how Palmer broke the basic rules of respect for the country that was going to receive him, crudely insulting the institutions ... of Venezuela," the Foreign Ministry said. It said Venezuelan officials have repeatedly made clear that Palmer is unwelcome, and will promptly notify the United States through formal diplomatic channels.

There was no immediate reaction from the US embassy, which has been without an ambassador since Patrick Duddy finished his assignment and left in July.

Bureau Report