February 3, 2006

US-Venezuela ties tested after diplomats expelled

By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela and the United
States have taken relations beyond heated rhetoric by expelling
diplomats in a new test to fraying ties between Washington and
a world oil power.

Flush with petroleum cash and with Cuba as his key ally,
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has positioned himself at the
center of regional opposition to U.S. President George W. Bush
by promoting his socialist revolution as the antidote to U.S.

Making charges reminiscent of the Cold War, the Venezuelan
leader on Thursday expelled U.S. naval attache for espionage
and warned he would throw out the full U.S. military mission if
authorities caught its officers spying on his government.

Washington responded on Friday by expelling a Venezuelan
official, whom it described as the ambassador's chief-of-staff,
in a tit-for-tat measure.

"This is not going to lead to breaking of relations, but
the government's decision will have repercussions in
Washington," said Riordan Roett of the Western Hemisphere
Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies in Washington.

"I can't remember the last time a U.S. diplomat was
expelled from Latin America. For Chavez to do this means he is
looking for a fight or has found the fight he wants," he said.

Ties between the United States and the world's No. 5 oil
exporter have deteriorated steadily since Chavez came to office
seven years ago, promising sweeping reforms for the poor.

Chavez calls Bush "Mr. Danger," attacks his "imperialist"
policies and accuses Washington of trying to kill him. U.S.
officials say Chavez has teamed up with Cuba to destabilize the
region with his revolutionary message.

Even before the expulsions, Washington's attempts to block
military sales to Venezuela and Chavez's charges of U.S.
espionage had European diplomats asking where the two
governments were headed.

Venezuela's vice president, Jose Vicente Rangel, said on
Friday relations were "complicated and difficult" but the
government would not allow the dispute get out of hand.

"They are moving their pieces and we are aware of the game
and we will respond in a calculated manner to these aggressions

without going to any extreme," he told reporters.


The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has tried to hold meetings at
every level of the Venezuelan government for the last 18
months, but has had no success, a spokesman said.

With communication often limited to public accusations, the
U.S. ambassador has started reading to the press from a small
card he carries with him listing 24 plots the government has
attributed to Washington so far.

While Venezuela still supplies about 15 percent of U.S.
crude imports, Chavez has steadily moved to break his country's
traditional economic reliance on the United States by seeking
out trade and energy deals with Iran, China and Russia.

He has presented himself as flag-bearer for a resurging
left wing in South America and supported causes from U.S. peace
activist Cindy Sheehan to Peruvian nationalist Ollanta Humala
and Iran in its dispute over its nuclear energy program.

Chavez foreign policies have irked Washington, which has
described the former army commander as a negative influence in
South America. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared
Chavez on Thursday to Adolf Hitler and other U.S. officials
warned about his growing ties to Iran and North Korea.

"The Rumsfeld comment is further proof that the
administration doesn't have a coherent policy. There are very
conflicting signals," said Michael Shifter at the U.S. think
tank Inter-American Dialogue.