Further escalating long-simmering tensions with the United States, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez officially expelled U.S. ambassador Patrick Duddy, declaring that he will not return an envoy to Washington until after the presidential elections in November.
“As soon as a new administration in Washington is sworn in, we will request approval to send and receive new ambassadors, with the hope and condition that they simply respect us,” Chávez said during a state ceremony earlier this month.
“We are not a threat to anyone on the planet or in this continent,” Chávez said. “We are open to cooperating with all of the peoples on earth, including the people of the United States.”
With his Sept. 11 decision to give Duddy just 72 hours to leave the country, Chávez expressed solidarity with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who ordered the top U.S. diplomat in his country to leave on Sept. 10. Both Chávez and Morales have accused the U.S. of backing opposition movements in their countries.
“Charges leveled against our fine ambassadors by the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela are false and the leaders of those countries know it,” responded U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack. “The only overthrow we seek is that of poverty.”
One of the poorest countries in Latin America, Bolivia is in the midst of increasing political turmoil. Morales, elected in 2005 after years as the head of an indigenous peasant movement, has had to contend with increasingly violent protests from right-wing groups opposed to his efforts to establish a constitutional assembly to rewrite the Bolivian constitution.
Concentrated primarily in the resource-rich lowlands of Bolivia, these opposition groups have resisted efforts to redistribute land and revise the sharing of government revenue with the indigenous majority. Following the passage of a new constitution in 2007, opposition groups have pushed governors in six of the country’s nine provinces to seek autonomy from the central government and maintain greater control over natural resources.
Morales has denounced these efforts as an attempt to break up Bolivia. While Morales overwhelmingly won a presidential recall referendum in August 2008, right-wing protests have grown increasingly violent.
Martial law was recently declared in the province of Pando after Peruvian and Brazilian mercenaries hired by the local governor killed as many as 30 peasant supporters of Morales.
Prior to the expulsion, Morales had repeatedly accused U.S. ambassador Phillip Goldberg of working to destabilize Bolivia through his support of the lowland opposition movements and U.S. funding directed to anti-Morales activists.
“Without fear of the empire and before all of you and the people of Bolivia, I declare Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador, persona non grata,” announced Morales from the presidential palace.
On Sept. 15, eight South American presidents met in Chile for an emergency summit on the political crisis in Bolivia. They declared their opposition to efforts to break up Bolivia, and also pledged not to recognize any change in government resulting from a civilian coup.
The relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela had similarly deteriorated several years ago in the wake of a 2002 military coup against Chávez after he oversaw the writing of a new constitution during his first term in office. After popular protests quickly returned Chávez to power, he alleged that the U.S. military had assisted in briefly toppling his government.
After accessing hundreds of government documents through the Freedom of Information Act, independent researcher Eva Gollinger found what she described as “hard evidence of U.S. involvement in undermining the Chávez government and the Bolivarian Revolution.”
According to Gollinger, this involvement has come largely through strategic advice and a fourfold increase in funding to opposition groups in the years after Chávez’s election. While some of this funding has come through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government organs, much of it has come through semi-private institutions.
“Those in the cabinet of the  coup government received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy,” explained Gollinger. “Two weeks after the coup, the same people who executed the coup continued to get even more funding.
“Groups like the National Endowment for Democracy are all part of the privatization of democracy promotion, as they have used U.S. government money to continue feeding the conflict.”
As Chávez’s government has sought greater control over Venezuela’s oil revenues and put in place a host of education and health programs, the political conflict that came to head in 2002 has continued, marked by a 64-day strike by the nation’s oil executives, a 2004 presidential recall vote, and a 2007 constitutional referendum.
Chávez has consistently alleged that U.S. officials have been involved in efforts to destabilize the Venezuelan government. Earlier this month, Chávez announced the arrest of several people suspected of involvement in a plot to assassinate him and take over government buildings.
In response to the expulsion of Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., treasury officials also announced that three Venezuelan officials are being sanctioned for allegedly supporting drug trafficking and arms smuggling by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Colombian guerrilla group.
While the U.S. and Colombia consider the FARC a terrorist group, Venezuela, Brazil and other Latin American countries reject this classification and advocate direct peace negotiations.
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