US, Venezuela evict ambassadors in diplomatic spat

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By Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dared the U.S. to expel his ambassador in retaliation for his move to reject the U.S. envoy to the South American country.

On Wednesday, that's just what the Obama administration did.

Chavez issued his dare a day earlier, saying he would not allow the U.S. diplomat, Larry Palmer, to be ambassador because the U.S. official made what Chavez described as blatantly disrespectful remarks about Venezuela.

"If the government is going to expel our ambassador there, let them do it," Chavez said, adding, "If they're going to cut diplomatic relations, let them do it."

U.S. diplomats familiar with the situation said the decision to revoke Bernardo Alvarez Herrera's visa came after Chavez's decision to withdraw his approval of Palmer. The diplomats said Alvarez is currently not in the U.S.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Palmer, who is awaiting Senate confirmation, angered Chavez by suggesting earlier this year that morale is low in Venezuela's military and that he is concerned Colombian rebels are finding refuge in Venezuela.

Chavez, whose economy relies heavily on oil sales to the United States, has accused Palmer of dishonoring the Venezuelan government by expressing concerns on several sensitive subjects — including 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.

"For an ambassador to come, he has to respect this homeland," Chavez said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said late Wednesday that the U.S. has taken "appropriate, proportional and reciprocal action."

Department officials also addressed the diplomatic standoff in their daily briefing Wednesday.

"We believe it's in our national interest to have an ambassador in Caracas so that we can candidly express our views and engage with the government of Venezuela," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "There are tensions in the relationship, and it's precisely because of that that we feel that it's important to have appropriate diplomatic relations."

Toner said the U.S. regrets the Venezuelan government's decision to block Palmer's appointment, saying, "It affects our ability to carry out normal diplomatic relations."

The State Department has been strongly critical of decree powers granted to Chavez by his congressional allies this month, a maneuver Crowley described as one more way for the leftist president to "justify autocratic powers."

"Now the U.S. government is threatening us that they're going to take reprisals. Well, let them do whatever they want, but that man will not come," Chavez said Tuesday.

The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has been without an ambassador since Patrick Duddy finished his assignment and left in July.

Chavez's latest actions in pushing through controversial laws are contributing to the diplomatic tensions.

The National Assembly on Dec. 17 granted Chavez broad powers to enact laws by decree for a year and a half. Opponents have condemned that and a package of other laws approved by Chavez's congressional allies, saying the legislative offensive amounts to an authoritarian power grab and will give Chavez new abilities to crack down on dissent.

The measures have been hurriedly passed before a new legislature takes office Jan. 5 with enough opposition lawmakers to prevent passage of some types of major laws.

Chavez said Tuesday that he used his decree powers to establish 10 military districts — many of them in three western states bordering Colombia, two of which are led by opposition governors. Chavez did not elaborate on how the districts will be administered, but they could be under the equivalent of martial law.

Chavez has defended his decree powers, saying he is trying to quickly provide funding for housing construction after floods and landslides that drove thousands from their homes, and also plans measures to accelerate his government's socialist-oriented efforts.

Other laws passed by Chavez's congressional allies this month increase state control of universities and block foreign funding to any nongovernment organizations that defend "political rights" — a change critics say will hobble some human rights groups.

One of the most controversial laws extends broadcast-type regulations to the Internet — barring messages that "disrespect public authorities," ''incite or promote hatred" or crimes, or could create "anxiety in the citizenry or alter public order."