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Chavez Stokes Confrontation Over U.S. Role in Venezuela

"It would be a disruption, but at the end of the day, no one country can control the international oil market," said William R. Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.

U.S. officials have also complained about strains in the traditionally cooperative efforts against drug trafficking. Earlier this year, the Venezuelan National Guard seized equipment from neighboring Colombia's anti-drug task force, which works closely with the United States. And last month, the head of Venezuela's drug-fighting squad -- whom international drug agents had considered very supportive -- was fired.

Venezuelan authorities bristle at suggestions they are being uncooperative in law enforcement matters. They argue that the U.S. government follows a double standard, pointing in particular to the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative who participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. A naturalized Venezuelan citizen now in a Texas prison on immigration charges, Posada, 77, has been accused of bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing all 73 aboard. He was arrested in Venezuela on terrorism charges but escaped from prison in 1985.

After becoming embroiled in a network run by former White House aide Oliver L. North to smuggle weapons to anti-government rebels in Nicaragua, and an alleged assassination attempt against Cuban President Fidel Castro for which he was imprisoned in Panama, Posada was spotted in Miami earlier this year. U.S. officials indicated they were unaware of his whereabouts, but in May, after he was interviewed by the Miami Herald, he was arrested and sent to a detention facility in El Paso. He is now seeking asylum to protect him from a Venezuelan extradition request. He faces a hearing in August.

The Posada case is as complex as a spy novel, but Venezuelan authorities say it boils down to this: If the United States is serious about prosecuting the war on terrorism, it should extradite Posada -- whom they compare to Osama bin Laden -- to face justice in the airliner bombing.

"If you have a president who speaks all the time about the importance of fighting terrorism," said Hernandez, the Foreign Ministry official, "we don't understand" the U.S. reluctance to extradite Posada. "The main reason to do it is to give justice to the families of the 73 people who died."

Posada's attorneys assert that he essentially was acquitted twice -- first by a Venezuelan military court, then by a civilian court that failed to convict him. His attorney here, a former intelligence officer named Joaquin Chaffardet, was indicted but never convicted for allegedly organizing Posada's prison break.

"I absolutely justify that decision," Chaffardet said of Posada's escape, adding that he was convinced Posada could never get a fair trial in Venezuela. "It is not justice to have someone waiting nine years for a trial after being acquitted already."

Venezuelan authorities say the civil case against Posada was still proceeding when he escaped. Posada's defenders insist the Venezuelan extradition request has nothing to do with bringing a terrorist to justice; they say Chavez is simply using the case as a tool against the United States.

Political opponents of Chavez also criticize the president's repeated claims that the CIA is backing a plot to murder him. On June 24, the government canceled an annual military parade, citing reports of an assassination plot against Chavez. On Independence Day, he watched a parade of the newly formed military reserve force that he hopes will eventually grow to 2 million loyal defenders. One group of opposition legislators calculates that Chavez has increased funding for his own security by 673 percent in the past six years.

The president's security concerns are not surprising, since he was temporarily toppled by a coup three years ago. This month, a judge ruled that the opposition group Sumate -- accused of accepting $31,000 from the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy -- must stand trial for its alleged role in inciting the coup.

One of the group's members, Maria Corina Machado, also is charged with civil rebellion for her role in the government that replaced Chavez for two days, until loyalists returned him to power. In May, Bush met with Machado in the White House, a move that infuriated Chavez. A State Department spokesman earlier this month defended Sumate, saying the group is devoted to educating voters and encouraging democracy.

"The judicial actions that are being taken here are, from our perspective, simply part of a Venezuelan government campaign that's designed to intimidate members of civil society and prevent them from exercising their democratic rights," Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said at a July 8 briefing.

U.S. officials say the atmosphere between the two countries is tainted with so much bad blood that no simple solution is likely to wash it away.

"We are going to constantly be in his cross hairs," one senior U.S. official said of Chavez. "We're talking about a man who has gone through all of his adult life in confrontation mode. It's not a question that we will have a negative relationship with him."

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