Venezuela Joins Bolivia In Expelling U.S. Envoy

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The Bush administration ends this week in a new diplomatic showdown with the leftist governments of Venezuela and Bolivia. Both countries have kicked out the U.S. ambassadors, accusing them of meddling.

The State Department reciprocated, and the Treasury Department has put three Venezuelans on a sanctions list, accusing them of aiding drug dealers in Colombia.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez used language that cannot be aired on radio or written here to describe what he thinks of the United States. He said he's had enough from — as he put it — the Yankees.

"Starting now, the Yankee ambassador in Caracas has 72 hours to leave Venezuela," Chavez said.

In addition, Chavez said he is withdrawing his ambassador from Washington until a new U.S. administration is in place. He accused the Bush administration of being behind conspiracies in Venezuela and Bolivia.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the allegations baseless and said both Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales were acting out of weakness and desperation when they expelled U.S. ambassadors.

"Look, this is part of the playbook," McCormack said. "Whenever things are not going well, either domestically or internationally, it is clear that they are trying to distract attention."

Bolivia's president is dealing with violent opposition protests in mainly wealthy parts of his country.

As for Venezuela, one top State Department official, who asked not to be named, said Chavez may be simply trying to energize his support base ahead of local elections in November.

The U.S. approach of late has been to try to avoid getting trapped in public debates with the man who once called President Bush the devil. That is becoming more difficult now.

Chavez is planning to cut back U.S. flights into his country. But he allowed Russian bombers to land in Venezuela, and he often holds out the oil card.

"If any aggression were perpetrated against Venezuela, there would be no oil for the people or the government of the United States," Chavez has said.

U.S. officials say they don't take that threat too seriously because Venezuela's industry is so integrated in the U.S. market and Chavez could be hurt more than the U.S. would be, if he stops exporting crude.

All this does not bode well for the next U.S. president, according to Peter DeShazo who runs the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. DeShazo says this goes beyond Chavez's dispute with the Bush administration and is part of a larger struggle for influence in the region.

"[Chavez] sees himself as an alternative to the United States," DeShazo says.

"He sees his Bolivarian revolution as meant to supplant U.S. influence in the region, and he's using his oil resources to try to promote Venezuela and to promote a vision for the region that is very different from the U.S. vision."

DeShazo says the best policy the U.S. can have is to listen more to leaders in Latin America, take a multilateral approach, and support democracy and economic growth as a way to fight poverty.

State Department spokesman McCormack says the U.S. is trying to promote a positive agenda.

"We are working closely with those others in the hemisphere who share these values, have an interest in promoting democracy, who have an interest in doing what is right for their people," McCormack says.

"None of what President Chavez or Morales did helps their people one bit."

While the diplomatic squabble played out between Washington and Caracas, the Treasury Department leveled some serious charges against two Venezuelan government officials and one former official.

The three men — all close to Chavez — were put on a sanctions list and accused of aiding the drug trafficking activities of the Colombian rebel group known as the FARC.

The State Department says this small coterie of officials sought to build up a strategic relationship with the FARC and enhance Chavez's standing — an effort the official says has failed.

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