By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 12, 2008
BOGOTA, Colombia, Sept. 11 -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told a throng of supporters Thursday that he is giving U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy 72 hours to leave the oil-rich country.
The populist leader said he issued the order in solidarity with his close ally in Bolivia, President Evo Morales, who on Wednesday ordered the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in La Paz after accusing him of fomenting unrest. The United States said it has nothing to do with a rising tide of violent anti-government protests in Bolivia, which led to the deaths of at least eight demonstrators on Thursday.
Spicing his speech with expletives, Chávez said he was also recalling Venezuela's ambassador, Bernardo Álvarez, from Washington. The decision, announced before thousands of supporters in the city of Puerto Cabello, signals that Chávez is willing to escalate his long confrontation with the United States to solidify support before mayoral and gubernatorial elections in November.
"Go to hell, Yankees," he said as the crowd hollered in support.
Chávez said that "when there's a new government in the United States, we will send an ambassador, a government that respects the people of Latin America, the America of Simón Bolívar."
Relations have been particularly strained in recent days as U.S. officials have accused Venezuela of falling far short in the war on drugs in the Andes. U.S. and Colombian authorities say an increasing amount of cocaine is funneled through Venezuela, often with Venezuelan officials participating in the trafficking. Venezuelan officials angrily deny the charges.
Chávez on Thursday also said that the United States was behind a plot to assassinate him, and his government announced a reduction in flights from the United States on American carriers. That decision was made in retaliation after U.S. officials issued warnings about the safety of Venezuelan airports.
This week, Chávez also relished the arrival of two Russian strategic bombers in Venezuela. The Tu-160 bombers, which Russian officials said are not carrying live weapons, are flying training missions over the Caribbean until Monday, when they will return to Russia.
Although NATO fighters escorted the bombers on their long flight to Venezuela, U.S. officials have said they are closely monitoring the exercises.
Chávez said the arrival of the bombers counters Washington's influence in the region and puts the United States "on notice." The training exercises come after Moscow showed its displeasure with the Bush administration for sending warships to provide assistance to Georgia, which last month lost a short war with Russia.
On Wednesday, Chávez said he wanted to fly "one of those beasts" past Cuba and greet his friend and mentor, former Cuban president Fidel Castro. Pavel Androsov, the head of the Russian air force's long-distance command, told Interfax that Chávez's request would be considered.
"If they ask us, then fine, if they give us such an order, we will safely transport him and show him the Caribbean from above," Androsov said.