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U.S. Concerned Over Cuban-Venezuelan Moves

The Bush administration is becoming increasingly concerned about what it sees as a joint effort by Cuba and Venezuela to nurture anti-American sentiment in Latin America with money, political indoctrination and training.

As U.S. officials see it, the alliance combines Cuban President Fidel Castro's (search) political savvy with surplus cash that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search) obtains from oil exports.

Venezuelan resources may have been decisive in the ouster of Bolivia's elected, pro-American president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada (search), said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A key recipient of Venezuelan help has been Evo Morales (search), a charismatic Bolivian legislator who has broad support among his country's indigenous population. He is an avowed opponent of the capitalist system.

Before Sanchez de Lozada was deposed, one official said, Venezuela's military attache in Bolivia was expelled for giving money to Morales, and Morales received money from Venezuelan officials in a visit to Caracas.

There also has been evidence of Venezuelan money and manpower in Ecuador and Uruguay being used in support of anti-government groups, the officials said. Despite Venezuelan denials, they said, Chavez has supported Colombia's FARC and ELN rebels, allowing use of territory in western Venezuela as a springboard for attacks inside Colombia.

In Caracas on Monday, Tarek William Saab, the pro-Chavez head of Venezuela's congressional foreign relations commission, denied that Venezuela was supporting FARC rebels or was meddling in Bolivia's internal affairs. Saab accused the U.S. government of "using slander and defamation to weaken a constitutional government like ours."

"It's false and irresponsible and cowardly," Saab said.

U.S. officials said Castro has been providing training, advice and logistical support to leftist groups in the region, a sign of re-engagement after relative inactivity in the 1990s.

Roger Noriega, Secretary of State Colin Powell's top aide for Latin America, said Friday that the 77-year-old Castro, in his "final days," appears to be "nostalgic for destabilizing elected governments. From the point of view of his democratic neighbors, Castro's actions are increasingly provocative."

Cuba sees the United States in the same light. A top Cuban National Assembly leader, Osvaldo Martinez, in remarks aired repeatedly by the government media in recent days, said Cubans must redouble their attention in 2004 "to the growing aggressiveness of the United States and its threats against Cuba."

This spring, the Bush administration is expected to issue a report being prepared under Powell's supervision on how to achieve a quick transition to democracy in Cuba.

Castro has deployed considerable manpower to Venezuela to help Chavez defeat efforts by enemies to end his rule through a recall vote.

U.S. officials say Castro has dispatched thousands of doctors, teachers and sports trainers to Venezuela who supplement their professional duties by carrying out political tasks. Cuban agents are said to be providing security for high-ranking Venezuelan officials.

Cuban officials acknowledge that Cubans are active in Venezuela but insist their mission is strictly humanitarian.

Chavez showed his radical side three years ago when he traveled to Saddam Hussein's Iraq and to Libya on a tour of oil-producing countries. U.S. officials also took note of an unannounced visit to Venezuela in September by North Korea's ambassador to Cuba.

Caracas also is described by U.S. officials as a gathering place for European leftists, retired East European intelligence officers and activists from countries on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

U.S. News & World Report magazine reported in the fall that Middle Eastern terrorist groups are operating support cells in Venezuela and elsewhere in the Andean region.

It added that thousands of Venezuelan identity documents are being distributed to foreigners from Islamic nations, including Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon.

At the State Department, Noriega declined to comment on reports based on intelligence information. But, he said: "We have told the Venezuelans that such reports are a matter of great concern to all of our Latin American neighbors."

Chavez has said he is a victim of outside interference and pointed to alleged assassination plots against him in the Dominican Republic and the United States.