FOSTER KLUG / IAN JAMES
September 12, 2008
WASHINGTON -- The United States stopped trying to be polite Friday in an escalating diplomatic shoving match with the populist leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia. Washington slapped new sanctions on three aides close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and called him weak and desperate. The Venezuelan ambassador got the boot for good measure, a move that was purely for show. Chavez had already brought his man home.
"Those who shout the loudest are not making the real news in the Americas," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said after Chavez used bathroom profanity to accuse the Americans of meddling in Latin America.
The rupture began Wednesday when Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador there, accusing him of inciting violent protests. Chavez followed suit Thursday, accusing the "U.S. empire" of helping plot a coup against him. He later gave the American ambassador 72 hours to quit the country.
McCormack adopted a grave tone to read a long defense to reporters Friday.
"The only meaningful conspiracy in the region is the common commitment of democratic countries to enhance opportunities for their citizens," he said. "The only overthrow we seek is that of poverty."
Separately, the United States accused three members of Chavez's inner circle of aiding Colombian rebels known as the FARC by supplying arms and helping drug traffickers.
Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement that the "designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents."
Violent clashes over Bolivia's future have claimed eight lives. U.S. diplomats say Chavez and Morales are punching the United States to distract attention from mismanagement and unpopularity at home.
"This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders," McCormack said.
Not long after he spoke, Honduras announced that it will hold off on the accreditation of a new U.S. ambassador in solidarity with Venezuela and Bolivia. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya said the Central American nation is not breaking relations with the United States.
Zelaya said small nations need to stick together.
"The world powers must treat us fairly and with respect," he said.
Zelaya previously planned to receive credentials Friday from U.S. diplomat Hugo Llorens.
Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, a close ally of Morales, has not announced yet whether he will take any action against the U.S. ambassador in Nicaragua.
"Dark forces of the empire are conspiring against the government of Morales," Ortega said Thursday, referring to the United States.
By the end of the week, it was clear that the Bush administration's second-term strategy to get along with many left-leaning governments in Latin America while saying as little as possible about Chavez had fizzled.
Chavez and Morales suggested they had no interest in improving ties with Washington until a new administration takes over in January.
Chavez has made a specialty of anti-American broadsides, including an infamous 2006 reference to President Bush as the devil. Morales, on the other hand, was seen by Washington as a potential partner. The former coca growing union boss campaigned with a mild anti-American edge, but shook hands warmly with Rice at a much-watched get-acquainted session in 2006. He gave her a present she couldn't keep: A traditional Bolivian string instrument plastered with coca leaves.
A two-week protest against Morales' plans to redo the constitution and redirect gas revenues turned violent this week as demonstrators in the country's energy-rich eastern provinces stormed public offices, blocked roads and seized gas fields.
His surprise move Wednesday to kick out the U.S. ambassador drew a mild response from Washington at first. The State Department said the diplomat had done nothing wrong, and then stalled for time to see if Morales was serious.
All hesitation was gone Friday.
"The charges leveled against our fine ambassadors by the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela are false _ and the leaders of those countries know it," McCormack said.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said Bush's government is "the only one responsible for the state of deterioration" of its relations with Latin America.
The government said it will "submit all its relations with the United States to an intense process of evaluation."
The new sanctions target Hugo Carvajal Barrios and Henry Rangel Silva, both chiefs of Venezuelan intelligence agencies. A former government minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, was also named. The officials have served as Chavez's most trusted security chiefs.
U.S. drug czar John Walters has said Venezuela, which suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005, is failing to take action against a sharp rise in cocaine smuggling. By U.S. estimates, the flow of Colombian cocaine through Venezuela has quadrupled since 2004, reaching an estimated 282 tons last year.
U.S. officials said the sanctions had been in the works for some time and are unrelated to the diplomatic dispute.
Associated Press writers Foster Klug in Washington, Ian James in Caracas and Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.