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Tensions Persist Between Caracas and Washington

In a recent interview on U.S. television, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez claimed to possess evidence that the Bush administration is planning to invade his country, and repeated threats to cut off oil shipments to the United States. It was the latest volley in a war of words between Caracas and Washington that seems to reach new rhetorical heights almost daily, yet one that does not seem to be impeding commercial and energy ties between the two nations.

In downtown Caracas, a speaker takes to the podium at a rally organized by local political groups allied with President Hugo Chavez.

He says, "Unity with the revolution! The united people will never be defeated! But defeat will come to the empire!"

Everyone there knows the "empire" means the United States.

Standing in the crowd, Julia Martinez echoes the anti-American sentiment.

She says, "[The United States] invaded Iraq citing the threat of nuclear weapons, but none were found. Who knows what reason the United States could find to attack Venezuela? All Venezuelans must be alert, and all Latin Americans united, because imperialism is on the march."

For several years, President Chavez has railed against the Untied States in general and the Bush administration in particular. Some of the strongest pronouncements have come during the president's weekly appearances on the state-run television program "Alo Presidente" ["Hello President'], where he recently blasted President Bush for, in his words, "having done absolutely nothing" as Hurricane Katrina approached the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"And Mr. Bush on vacation," said Hugo Chavez. "On vacation in Crawford. On a horse."

President Chavez has offered $5 million in aid to the hurricane victims, and offered to sell heating oil at a reduced price to America's poor. The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, says aid is welcome, but criticism is a two-way street.

"We [the U.S. and Venezuela] have some fundamental differences," said William Brownfield. "We should not try to conceal these differences. Nor should we try to muzzle ourselves on these differences. As the government of Venezuela expresses its views, which it expresses with great regularity and at considerable volume - its views on the United States government, U.S. policies, U.S. activities throughout the world - we are going to express our views, as well."

While urging a continued close relationship in energy, the Bush administration has been critical of Venezuela's growing ties with Cuba, and voiced concerns about allegations of Venezuelan backing for leftist movements in the Americas. Most recently, President Bush declared Venezuela uncooperative in the war on illegal drugs, but waved most penalties proscribed by U.S. law.

In an interview with VOA, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel says the only thing his nation demands is respect.

Mr. Rangel says, "The Bush administration believes Venezuela should follow the policies Washington lays out. And this cannot be. We will do as we feel is best. And that is all. There are no other points of contention. We have no desire to attack the United States. We have no phobia of the United States. But we want Washington to respect our sovereignty."

Allegations of U.S. interference and an undercurrent of anti-U.S. sentiment are not new in Venezuela. While visiting Caracas in 1958, then-U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon was met by mobs that attacked his motorcade and chanted for his death. But today, some Venezuelans, like computer technician Freddy Hernandez, see President Chavez' anti-American stance as political opportunism.

He says, "Poorer people absolutely love this confrontation. [President Chavez is saying,] 'Look, I am making a fool of this country.' It is just a game to keep him in power. It is like a soap opera. And, in the meantime, Chavez is making deals with the United States on oil. So this is all words, not actions."

Yet even some of Mr. Chavez' fiercest critics describe U.S. policy toward Latin America in general, and toward Venezuela in particular, as lacking.

One opposition leader expected to challenge Mr. Chavez in next year's presidential elections, newspaper publisher Teodoro Petkoff, told VOA, in his words, "President Chavez is eating the United States alive in Latin American affairs."

Another opposition leader who has already declared his candidacy, Julio Borges of the Primero Justicia (Justice First) Party, says U.S. engagement with the region must extend beyond free-trade accords.

He says, "Chavez wants to cut the historic ties with the United States and make Venezuela into an island, like Cuba. And the way to do that is to portray the United States as the enemy. And I think the United States is inept in dealing with Latin America, and especially with Venezuela. It cannot be that the only proposal from Washington for the region is the Free Trade Area of the Americas - this is a poor and incomplete agenda. We want more profound proposals to strengthen human rights, [democratic] institutions, and the civil society."

Political analysts say President Chavez has always harbored anti-American passions, but that they came to the forefront after the United States was perceived as being slow to condemn a failed coup that briefly removed Mr. Chavez from power in 2002.

The president has also accused the United States of taking sides in the 2004 referendum in which Venezuelans were asked whether Mr. Chavez should remain in power. Most recently, American evangelist and one-time Republican presidential aspirant Pat Robertson called for Mr. Chavez' assassination. U.S. officials deny any U.S. campaign to remove the Venezuelan leader from office in any fashion, and say that Mr. Robertson's comments in no way reflect U.S. policy.