US, Venezuela at odds on ambassador, Chavez powers

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela flared over Washington’s nominee for ambassador Saturday as President Hugo Chavez warned that the diplomat would be detained and put on the next flight home if he tries to set foot in the country.

For months Chavez has been warning that President Barack Obama’s nominee, Larry Palmer, would not be welcome under any circumstances due to critical remarks he made about the Venezuelan government. During his Senate confirmation process, Palmer suggested that morale is low in Venezuela’s military, and also expressed concern about Colombian rebels finding refuge in Venezuela.

“He went ahead and said whatever he felt like saying, disrespecting Venezuela, a group of honorable generals … the government, the Venezuelan constitution,” Chavez said in a televised speech. “How is he going to be ambassador? He disqualified himself.”

Chavez chuckled as he addressed Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, saying Palmer must be stopped if he attempts to fly into Caracas’ international airport, in nearby Maiquetia.

“If he arrives at Maiquetia, grab him, Nicolas, grab him,” Chavez said. “Give Mr. Palmer a coffee from me, and then ‘bye-bye.’ He cannot, he cannot enter this country.”

The U.S. State Department has insisted it stands behind Palmer as the best candidate for the job. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela said Thursday that if the Senate confirms Palmer as ambassador, he will soon be sent to Caracas.

“With Palmer’s arrival to Venezuela, we see an effort of both countries to try to establish a more fluid dialogue,” Valenzuela told reporters in a conference call. “It has to be frank, because we won’t be in agreement on some things.”

Chavez, whose economy relies heavily on U.S. oil sales, initially expressed optimism that under Obama years of hostility between Venezuela and the U.S. could ease, but the tensions have persisted.

Chavez says the Obama administration has continued to try to undermine his government. State Department officials have increasingly voiced concerns about threats to personal freedoms and democracy in Venezuela.

The U.S. government has been strongly critical of decree powers granted to Chavez on Friday by his congressional allies, shortly before a new National Assembly takes over next month with a larger opposition contingent capable of hindering approval of some types of laws.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday that Chavez “seems to be finding new and creative ways to justify autocratic powers.” Chavez dismissed those criticisms, saying that “it’s the empire and its permanent aggressions, its threats.”

Chavez has previously warned that Palmer wouldn’t be allowed to come to Venezuela, though not in such strong nor specific terms.

There was no immediate reaction from the U.S. Embassy, which has been without an ambassador since Patrick Duddy finished his assignment and left in July.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry called the U.S. government’s insistence on appointing Palmer a “new provocation” in a statement on Saturday, condemning what it called his “unacceptable conduct.”

Palmer, a former ambassador to Honduras, raised some particularly sensitive issues in his written response to questions from Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana earlier this year, expressing concerns about Cuba’s influence within Chavez’s military and renewing 2008 accusations by the U.S. Treasury Department that three members of Chavez’s inner circle helped Colombian rebels by supplying arms and aiding drug-trafficking operations.

Palmer said he was concerned that two of them — Gen. Hugo Carvajal and Gen. Henry Rangel Silva — still hold high-ranking positions.

Chavez has denied accusations that his close confidants are aiding Colombian rebels or drug traffickers, insisting such claims are part of a U.S. smear campaign intended to discredit his socialist-oriented government.

“It’s well known how Palmer broke the basic rules of respect for the country that was going to receive him, crudely insulting the institutions … of Venezuela,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Chavez said the Americans should have gotten the point by now that Palmer is unwelcome. “We told them he should not come. We also sent it to them in writing two months ago,” he said. – Yahoo News