February 2, 2006

Venezuela expels U.S. military official

By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela expelled a U.S.
Embassy naval attache on Thursday after accusing him of
espionage for trying to get Venezuelan officers to hand over
state secrets.

The expulsion aggravated already tense relations between
the United States and the world's No. 5 oil exporter, as
President Hugo Chavez aggressively promotes his socialist
revolution to counter U.S. influence in South America.

Chavez, a populist former soldier allied to Cuban President
Fidel Castro and Iran, warned he could expel the full U.S.
military mission if its officers were caught spying.

"We have declared persona non grata U.S. naval captain John
Correa, he must leave the country immediately," Chavez said at
a ceremony to celebrate his seven years in government.

A U.S. State Department official in Washington rejected the
espionage charges and the Pentagon said Correa was a Navy
commander who had returned to the United States as part of his
duties. He did not say when Correa left Caracas.

"We will respond through diplomatic channels," State
Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said, referring to a January
30 letter the United States received about Correa. "None of the
U.S. attaches was or is engaged in inappropriate activities."

U.S. officials brand leftist Chavez an authoritarian who
has trampled over democracy at home and threatened regional
stability by using Venezuela's oil wealth to meddle in the
politics of his South American neighbors.

Chavez often calls U.S. President George W. Bush "Mr.
Danger," criticizes his foreign policies and has repeatedly
accused Washington of trying to overthrow his government since
he survived a 2002 coup.

Venezuelan authorities said last week they had
"confidential evidence" that U.S. Embassy staff were involved
with a group of Venezuelan military officers accused of passing
state secrets to the U.S. Defense Department.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said they had received a letter
from authorities demanding Correa appear before investigators
earlier this week and on Thursday another ordering him out.

Venezuela has 65 military officials in the United States
and Washington has 21 officials in Venezuela.


Speaking later before a huge armed forces parade, Chavez
lambasted U.S. imperialism and demanded Venezuelan soldiers
reject attempts to turn them against his revolution aimed at
reversing years of neglect of the impoverished majority.

Chavez purged the armed forces after the 2002 coup. He has
created a national reserve he says will help defend Venezuela
against a U.S. invasion and sought military equipment from
Spain and Brazil with deals the United States says could
destabilize the region.

"We must finish the exorcism, because they injected us with
the devil of a military doctrine ..., the imperialist military
doctrine," roared Chavez, a former paratrooper who himself led
a coup six years before winning power at the ballot box.

Chavez was due to travel to Havana later on Thursday to
meet with Castro.

Flush with oil cash, Chavez has promoted himself as the
frontman for a burgeoning left-wing resurgence in South
America, where Evo Morales has become Bolivia's first
indigenous president on the back of resistance to U.S.-backed

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had
harsh words for Chavez but did not address the expulsion.

"He's a person who was elected legally, just as Adolf
Hitler was elected legally and then consolidated power, and now
is of course working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales
and others," he said at the National Press Club.

(Additional reporting by Saul Hudson in Washington)