December 30, 2010 / 4:59 PM / 7 years ago

Venezuela condemns "imperial" U.S. visa reprisal

<p>Supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez hold the national flag on Margarita island September 26, 2009.Carlos Garcia Rawlins</p>

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela condemned on Thursday the United States' revocation of its ambassador's visa as an "imperial" move by President Barack Obama's government, saying the measure should be immediately overturned.

In the latest flare-up between the ideological foes, Washington withdrew the visa of ambassador Bernardo Alvarez on Wednesday in retaliation for the rejection by socialist President Hugo Chavez of Obama's nominated envoy to Caracas.

Diplomat Larry Palmer had criticized Venezuela's government, saying morale in its military was low, and that there were clear ties between members of the Chavez administration and leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia.

"This is a new aggression by the State Department," Roy Daza, a prominent ruling party member who heads parliament's foreign affairs committee, told Reuters. "The only possible solution is for the United States to rectify its position."

The tit-for-tat appeared to bury any lingering prospects of rapprochement between the Obama administration and Chavez, who has inherited Fidel Castro's mantle as Latin America's leading critic of the United States.

Despite the diplomatic spat, few expect either Venezuela or the United States to risk jeopardizing trade ties -- principally oil -- crucial to both nation's economies.

The OPEC member is one of the top five oil suppliers to the United States, exporting 930,000 barrels per day of crude and products in October, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. (r.reuters.com/pef34r)

Chavez had blocked Palmer's arrival because of the diplomat's comments in a letter to a U.S. senator during his confirmation process. In addition to Palmer's views on military morale and Colombian rebel links, he had also alleged growing Cuban influence in Venezuela's armed forces.

"Mr. Palmer insulted, slandered and lied shamelessly in his speech to the Senate. For this reason, he disqualified himself as the United States' diplomatic representative to Venezuela," Daza said in a telephone interview.

"Imperial Mentality"

When Obama took office in January 2009, promising more engagement with foes, there had been expectations of a possible rapprochement. Chavez toned down his tirades against the "empire" and shook hands with the new U.S. leader at a summit.

But within months, Chavez said Obama was disillusioning the world by following his predecessor George W. Bush's foreign policies, and the rhetoric from Caracas cranked up again.

His government said Washington's insistence on naming Palmer showed its "policy of aggression" against the Venezuelan people, and Chavez said the diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks had proved that all U.S. ambassadors were "spies."

Daza said the visa revocation showed there had not been any real change in the U.S. line toward the rest of the world.

"It shows that the change in U.S. president did not represent a change of the imperial mentality," he said.

The Foreign Ministry also issued a protest note condemning the "history of interventionism and aggression against Venezuela's people, institutions and democracy."

But analysts did not expect the spat to affect trade ties including Venezuelan oil exports to the United States. Although it is seeking to diversify its export portfolio toward political allies like China, Venezuela is in a second year of recession and cannot afford to drastically cut U.S. sales. Past threats by Chavez to do so have not materialized.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Caracas had brought the visa measure upon itself.

"We said there would be consequences when the Venezuelan government rescinded agreement regarding our nominee, Larry Palmer. We have taken appropriate, proportional and reciprocal action," Toner told reporters in an e-mail late on Wednesday.

A member of Venezuela's political opposition said Chavez and Washington were both playing a dangerous game.

"This has been a badly-handled relationship by both government, and that worries us in the opposition because the United States is Venezuela's main trade partner," Ramon Jose Medina, foreign affairs spokesman for the Democratic Unity opposition coalition, told Reuters.

"The United States is an important nation with which we should have stable and cordial relations."

Additional reporting by Patricia Rondon; Editing by Frances Kerry and Jackie Frank

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