CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez named a powerful general and close ally as his defense minister Friday, an officer accused by Washington of aiding drug traffickers and arming rebels in neighboring Colombia.
Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the military's strategic operations commander, will take over the ministry from Gen. Carlos Mata Figueroa, Chavez said in the central city of Guarane, where the president went to attend a church ceremony.
Rangel, a former intelligence chief, angered Venezuela's opposition in late 2010 when he said in a newspaper interview that the military wouldn't accept an opposition victory in the 2012 presidential election.
Chavez then further angered opposition politicians by promoting Rangel to general-in-chief.
Rangel is one of four members of Chavez's inner circle that the U.S. government put on its Foreign Narcotics Kingpins list in 2008. Washington accused them of helping drug gangs and supplying the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia with arms. The move froze any assets they might have in the United States and barred Americans from doing business with them.
Chavez has denied the charges against his allies and has fiercely defended Rangel, calling him a "revolutionary soldier."
At the time, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said the sanctions against the officials were part of an "agenda of permanent aggression against Venezuela."
Chavez has long been embroiled in tensions with the United States. U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Venezuela of failing to take adequate steps to curb drug trafficking, while the socialist leader has accused Washington of acting as an imperial power and not respecting Venezuela's sovereignty.
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas has been without an ambassador since July 2010, with Chavez rejecting the U.S. nominee for ambassador, Larry Palmer, and accusing him of making disrespectful remarks about Venezuela's government. That led Washington to revoke the visa of the Venezuelan ambassador.
Chavez announced Rangel's appointment after attending a special Mass in Guarane to "keep a promise" to the Virgin of Coromoto for aiding his recovery from cancer.