Venezuela's Chavez blocks nominated U.S. envoy

CARACAS (Reuters) - Newly nominated U.S. ambassador Larry Palmer will not be allowed to take up his post in Caracas after criticizing Venezuela’s socialist government, President Hugo Chavez said Sunday.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during his weekly broadcast "Alo Presidente" at Miraflores Palace in Caracas August 8, 2010. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout

“How do you think, Obama, that I am going to accept that gentleman as ambassador?” Chavez said on his weekly TV program, referring to President Barack Obama’s proposed envoy to the South American OPEC member. “It’s impossible.”

Palmer told a U.S. senator recently that morale was low in Venezuela’s military and there were “clear ties” between members of Chavez’s government and leftist Colombian rebels.

His comments came at an awkward time after Colombia accused Venezuela of sheltering guerrillas on its soil. Chavez denies the accusations and broke diplomatic ties with Colombia over the issue.

“He himself ruled himself out, breaking all the rules of diplomacy, having a go at us, even the armed forces,” Chavez said of Palmer. “Probably you will withdraw him, Obama. Don’t insist, I’m asking you.”

Washington’s main critic in Latin America, Chavez initially said he hoped for good relations with Obama, but that quickly soured and the Venezuelan now uses the same disparaging rhetoric about the U.S. government as before.

The United States is Venezuela’s top oil buyer, and Caracas is the fifth biggest U.S. supplier after Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Nigeria.

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Before Chavez’s announcement, Venezuela’s foreign ministry had demanded an explanation from Washington for what it called “meddling and interventionism.”

A State Department official said Palmer’s comments were in line with government opinion.

In written replies to questions from Republican Senator Richard 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.

He also said it was “particularly concerning” that General Henry Rangel Silva had recently been promoted to operational chief of Venezuela’s 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, known as FARC.

Palmer also said the professionalism of Venezuela’s armed forces had declined because of the retirement of many officers, and due to a move by Chavez that allows non-commissioned officers transition directly to the commissioned corps.

Chavez has had a fiery time with U.S. envoys.

In 2008, he expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy from Caracas in a dispute over what he said was Washington’s involvement in violent protests in Bolivia. Duddy returned during a period of good will after Obama took office, but relations have since hardened again.

Editing by Chris Wilson