U.S. says envoy to speak out despite Chavez threat

WASHINGTON Tue Sep 2, 2008 6:30pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials will keep speaking out despite Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's threat to expel the U.S. ambassador in Caracas in a dispute over drug trafficking, the State Department said on Tuesday.

Chavez, who spars with the United States over everything from oil prices and free trade to democracy, made the threat following U.S. criticism that Venezuela should do more to stop cocaine flowing through its territory from Colombia.

The Venezuelan president, who threatened to expel U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy in his weekly TV program on Sunday, has made similar threats before without following through.

Relations between the Bush administration and Venezuela's socialist government have been strained for years despite the fact that the United States is the largest customer for the South American nation's oil.

After White House drug czar John Walters last week complained that the amount of cocaine passing through Venezuela had increased almost fivefold in the last four years, Chavez dismissed him as "stupid."

Asked about the threat, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "Our officials, including Ambassador Duddy, are going to continue to speak out on the state of U.S.-Venezuelan relations ... (and) what we see happening inside Venezuela."

"That does not foreclose the possibility of a better relationship ... and certainly we're prepared to have a better relationship," he added, saying Washington first needed to see some unspecified actions by the Venezuelan government.

Chavez ended formal anti-drug work with the United States in 2005 and refuses to renew a cooperation accord.

Although Venezuela does cooperate with other countries against illegal narcotics, it has become an increasingly important transit route for drug traffickers in recent years.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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