September 12, 2008
CARACAS -- The U.S. government Friday accused two senior Venezuelan intelligence officials and President Hugo Chávez's former interior minister of helping Colombian FARC guerrillas with weapons and drug trafficking, sharpening a confrontation that also saw Washington expel Venezuela's ambassador.
Named in the U.S. accusation were Gen. Hugo Carvajal, head of military intelligence; Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, head of the secret police (Disip); and Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, a longtime Chávez security aide who resigned as interior minister on Monday.
The move by the U.S. Treasury Department, a day after Chávez announced the expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy, freezes any assets the three men may have under U.S. jurisdiction.
Rodríguez Chacín is accused of helping the FARC obtain weapons, while the other two allegedly protected drug shipments. There was no immediate reaction to the sanctions from the Venezuelan authorities.
The latest spike in tensions between Washington and Caracas began with Bolivia's expulsion Wednesday of U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg after President Evo Morales accused him of encouraging the autonomy movement in the country's eastern provinces, which have led to violent clashes with supporters of the leftist Morales.
Washington retaliated Thursday by expelling the Bolivian ambassador to the United States. Chávez in turn cited his ''solidarity'' with Bolivia as he gave the U.S. ambassador in Caracas 72 hours to leave. The U.S. government in turn Friday expelled Chávez envoy in Washington.
U.S. State department spokesman Sean McCormick said Washington ''regrets'' the expulsions, which ''reflect the weakness and desperation'' of the Chávez and Morales governments in the face of ``serious internal challenges.''
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said McCormack's statement was an attempt to ''cover up the reality of the decadent government of the United States.'' A foreign ministry statement accused Washington of ''repeated demonstrations of hostility'' toward Venezuela.
The Treasury announcement identified Rodríguez Chacín as the Chávez government's ''main weapons contact for the FARC'' and alleged he attempted to ``facilitate a $250 million loan from the Venezuelan government to the FARC in late 2007.''
The three also aided drug trafficking by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the statement added.
Bush administration officials have increasingly complained that the Venezuelan government is doing little to stem the flow of Colombian cocaine through its territory, estimated to have grown by a factor of four since 2004.
All three Venezuelans' names surfaced earlier this year in computer files captured by Colombian authorities after a raid into Ecuador that killed a senior FARC commander known as Raúl Reyes.
One captured e-mail reported that Carvajal would help ''get us 20 bazookas.'' Several others mentioned Rodríguez Chacín as Chávez's key man in dealings with the FARC, partly in negotiations to win the release of FARC hostages but also on illegal matters such as the $250 million loan.
Chávez has charged the computer files were manipulated to attack his government. Rodríguez Chacín cited personal reasons for his resignation.
Chávez has long attacked the Bush administration -- calling the U.S. president ''a donkey,'' ''the devil'' and ''a drunkard.'' But some observers saw his expulsion of the U.S. ambassador as an overly harsh response to the events in Bolivia.
''There are two elements that explain Chávez's latest move,'' said Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the newspaper Tal Cual and a former planning minister.
''One is the electoral campaign. Chávez wants to pose the dilemma -- Bush or me,'' he said. In November, Venezuelans go to the polls to elect new regional and local governments, and the opposition hopes to make significant gains.
'The other is the `atomic bomb' in Miami,'' Petkoff added, referring to the Miami trial of a Venezuelan businessman accused of acting as undeclared agents of the Chávez government in a bid to cover up a scandal involving a suitcase stuffed with nearly $800,000 in cash.
It is alleged that the money was an illegal donation to the election campaign of Argentine President Cristina Kirchner. Rangel Silva and Rodríguez Chacín's successor as interior minister, Tarek El Aissami, have been identified in court documents as having taken part in the cover-up attempt.
The Argentine and Venezuelan governments have dismissed the allegations as ``garbage.''
In the United States, Chávez got little sympathy Friday.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., the powerful chairman of the western hemisphere subcommittee of the House foreign affairs committee, called Chávez's move ''nonsense and provocation'' and called for ``cooler heads to prevail".
Republican presidential candidate John McCain also condemned Chávez, saying he runs an ''authoritarian regime [that] represses its people.'' Democratic candidate Barack Obama dismissed the Chávez and Morales expulsions as a `fabricated confrontation.''
But in Honduras -- which recently joined ALBA, a Venezuelan-led group that seeks to reduce U.S. influence in the region -- President Manuel Zalaya said Friday it would postpone the accreditation of the new U.S. ambassador there in solidarity with Bolivia.
President Alan Garcia of Peru, whose constant quarrels with Morales and Chavez's ''21st-century socialism'' have occasionally devolved into insults, was among Latin leaders backing the Bolivian leader on Friday.
Garcia told reporters in Lima on Friday that he opposes ``any separatist effort to break the integrity of nations.''