WASHINGTON The United States on Friday accused three members of anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's inner circle of aiding Colombian rebels by supplying arms and helping drug traffickers. Washington also expelled Chavez's ambassador as a diplomatic clash intensified.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the expulsions this week of the American ambassadors to Venezuela and Bolivia. He said the United States would kick out the Venezuelan even though Chavez had announced Thursday night that he was yanking his ambassador.
"This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders," McCormack said of Chavez and the embattled Bolivian president, Evo Morales. He suggested that the expulsion of the U.S. ambassadors was meant to distract attention from the countries' regional and domestic difficulties.
McCormack also warned: "No country has ever improved the well-being of its citizens by antagonizing neighbors and refraining from fruitful integration with the world's democracies."
Morales began the diplomatic spat by expelling the U.S. ambassador on Wednesday; U.S. officials responded by kicking out Bolivia's envoy to the United States. Chavez, who has been a political patron for Morales, followed suit Thursday. "Clearly he's worried about his protege," McCormack said of Chavez.
McCormack added: "The charges leveled against our fine ambassadors by the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela are false and the leaders of those countries know it."
Separately, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva, both high ranking Venezuelan intelligence officials. A former government minister, Ramon Emilio Rodriguez Chacin, was also named.
Treasury said Friday the three helped the narcotics trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, describing the leftist group as a narco-terrorist organization.
At the State Department, McCormack said the sanctions had been in the works for some time and are unrelated to the diplomatic dispute.
The three officials are from Chavez's inner circle, and have served as his most trusted security chiefs.
Signs of FARC links to Venezuelan military intelligence chief Gen. Carvajal surfaced earlier this year in documents on laptops seized from a bombed Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador.
In one 2007 message, the rebels' main go-between with the Chavez government said that Carvajal would help "get us 20 bazookas."
Rodriguez Chacin stepped down on Monday as justice minister, saying he was leaving for personal reasons but continues to be a "revolutionary" and hopes to serve in another capacity. The specific reasons for his departure have not been explained.
A close ally to Chavez, Rodriguez Chacin was the president's primary contact with the FARC in talks on freeing hostages during the past year, and has for years been Chavez's leading go-between with the rebels.
Critics have accused Rodriguez Chacin of being too close to the Colombian rebels, and he was recorded in a video during one hostage release telling guerrillas, "we're paying attention to your fight."
Gen. Rangel, head of Venezuela's DISIP intelligence agency, generally keeps a low profile, but his name emerged this week in a Miami courtroom where witnesses are testifying in the trial of a man accused of acting as an illegal foreign agent for Venezuela.
One businessman, Moises Maionica, testified that Rangel was designated by Chavez to oversee attempts to cover up the Venezuelan source of $800,000 in cash flown into Argentina in a suitcase and seized last year.
Prosecutors allege the money was provided by Venezuela's state oil company for the campaign of Argentina's new president, Cristina Fernandez. Argentina denies it, and Chavez calls the accusations "trash."