WASHINGTON — The Obama administration revoked the visa of the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States on Wednesday in a tit-for-tat diplomatic response to Venezuela's rejection of the U.S. choice to be the next envoy to the South American country.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday dared the U.S. government to expel his ambassador, saying he will not allow the U.S. diplomat, Larry Palmer, to be ambassador because he 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.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said late Wednesday that the U.S. has taken "appropriate, proportional and reciprocal action."
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 officials addressed the diplomatic standoff in the agency's 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."
Venezuelan-American lawyer and activist Eva Golinger, who is editor of the English edition of the Venezuelan government newspaper Correo del Orinoco, said on Twitter on Wednesday night that the U.S. had revoked Alvarez's visa in an "act of vengeance, provoking a diplomatic rupture."
Golinger said the U.S. government brought about the situation "through dirty maneuvering."
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, meanwhile, 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 had discussed the idea previously, calling the special military zones an effort to boost security. He said Tuesday that he had established the first 10 such districts by decree and that he expects to create more, including in urban areas such as Caracas and Maracaibo.
Marcel Granier, a media executive whose channel RCTV was pushed off the airwaves by the government in 2007, condemned the latest decree, saying Chavez "is trying to put a military authority above the civil one."
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.
The National Assembly also passed laws that make it easier for the government to revoke TV or radio licenses, speed up the process if Chavez decides to nationalize more banks, and allow for the suspension of any lawmakers who defect from a party during their term.
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 that could create "anxiety in the citizenry or alter public order." ___
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.