CARACAS Venezuela has complained to the United States about comments made by the newly nominated U.S. ambassador to Caracas, accusing him of meddling before he had even set foot in the South American nation.
Larry Palmer told a U.S. Senator last week that morale was low in Venezuela's military and that there were "clear ties" between members of President Hugo Chavez's socialist government and leftist Colombian guerrillas operating in Venezuela.
"The government ... considers the content of these statements to constitute a serious precedent of meddling and interventionism by someone who has yet to set foot on Venezuelan territory," Venezuela's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement late on Wednesday.
"The government is evaluating the consequences of this unacceptable declaration, which it strongly rejects in its entirety, and has asked for an explanation from the U.S. government before making a final decision on the matter."
Palmer's comments came at a sensitive moment after Colombia accused Venezuela of tolerating leftist Colombian rebels on its territory -- a charge that Caracas denies.
Chavez broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia over the accusations and said he had bolstered military defenses on the border, alleging the neighboring country planned to attack.
In written replies to questions from Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, Palmer said he was "keenly aware of the clear ties" between members of the Chavez government and Colombian rebels.
"The Venezuelan government has been unwilling to prevent Colombian guerrillas from entering and establishing camps in Venezuelan territory," Palmer said.
The diplomat said it was "particularly concerning" that Gen. Henry Rangel Silva had recently been promoted to operational chief of the armed forces.
Silva is one of two Chavez officials and an ex-minister that the United States in 2008 put on its "kingpin" list, accusing them of materially assisting the drug trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Asked about Venezuela's armed forces, Palmer said their professionalism had decreased because of the retirement of many officers, and due to a move by Chavez letting non-commissioned officers transition directly to the commissioned corps.
"Most significantly, there has been a noted preference for political loyalty over professional talent," Palmer wrote. "Morale is reported to be considerably low, particularly due to politically-oriented appointments."
Palmer added that he was concerned that Cuba's influence within the Venezuelan military would grow.
Chavez is a close ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro, and thousands of Cubans work in Venezuela as doctors, nurses, teachers and technicians. Palmer said there were credible reports of growing cooperation between Caracas and Havana in military matters and intelligence services.
Chavez does not deny that Cubans advise the military.
Venezuela's military top brass appeared on television on Thursday to reject Palmer's comments about the armed forces, emphasizing high morale and saying promotions were merit-based.
Defense Minister Carlos Mata, dressed in a khaki green uniform, also defended Venezuela's military ties with Cuba
"Only a twisted, perverse mind could confuse collaboration between two brother nations, as in the case of Cuba, with intervention," Mata said.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis and Frank Jack Daniel)