CARACAS, Venezuela – Pat Robertson's (search) call for American agents to assassinate President Hugo Chavez (search) is a "terrorist" statement that needs to be investigated by U.S. authorities, Venezuela said Tuesday. The Bush administration quickly distanced itself from the religious broadcaster.
Robertson's suggestion Monday that the United States "take out" Chavez to stop Venezuela from becoming a "launching pad for communist influence and Muslim extremism" appeared likely to aggravate tensions between the United States and the world's fifth-largest oil exporting country.
Chavez, who was democratically elected, has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of President Bush, accusing the United States of conspiring to topple his government and possibly backing plots to assassinate him. The United States is the top buyer of Venezuelan oil, but Chavez has made it clear he wants to decrease the country's dependence on the U.S. market by finding other buyers.
Winding up a visit to Cuba, Chavez said in response to questions from reporters about Roberston's remarks that such comments did not matter to him and that he would prefer to "talk about life."
"I don't even know who that person is," said Chavez, standing next to Cuban leader Fidel Castro (search) at Havana's airport.
In Venezuela, however, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel (search) said the U.S. response to Robertson would be a test of its anti-terrorist policy and that Venezuela was studying its legal options.
"It's a huge hypocrisy to maintain this discourse against terrorism and at the same time, in the heart of that country, there are entirely terrorist statements like those," Rangel said.
Asked about his vice president's statement, Chavez said, "we haven't heard anything." Castro, referring to Robertson's words, said "only God can punish crimes of such magnitude."
Rangel called Robertson "a man who seems to have quite a bit of influence in that country," adding that the comments "reveal that religious fundamentalism is one of the great problems facing humanity in these times."
At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said when asked about Robertson's comments: "Our department doesn't do that kind of thing. It's against the law. He's a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Robertson's remarks "inappropriate."
"This is not the policy of the United States government. We do not share his views," McCormack said.
The United States was believed in the past to have been involved in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Binh Diem and attempts to assassinate Castro.
Political assassination was put off-limits by former President Gerald R. Ford in an executive order in the mid-1970s.
Rumsfeld said he knew of no consideration ever being given to assassinating Chavez.
Robertson is a founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a supporter of Bush, who was elected twice with the solid backing of Christian conservatives.
The 75-year-old religious broadcaster has made controversial statements in the past. In October 2003, he suggested that the State Department be blown up with a nuclear device. He has also said that feminism encourages women to "kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."
On Monday, Robertson said on the Christian Broadcast Network's "The 700 Club": "We have the ability to take him (Chavez) out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability."
"We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator," he continued. "It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."
A spokeswoman for Robertson, Angell Watts, declined to elaborate on his statements Tuesday and said Robertson would not be available to comment.
Chavez has irritated U.S. officials with his fiery rhetoric against American "imperialism" and his increasingly close ties to U.S. enemies such as Cuba and Iran. He says he is leading Venezuela toward socialism and, in a visit to Cuba this week, praised Castro's system as a "revolutionary democracy."
Chavez left Cuba Tuesday afternoon for Jamaica to discuss Petrocaribe, a Venezuela initiative to supply petroleum to Caribbean countries under favorable terms.
The Venezuelan president for the first time offered to help impoverished U.S. communities with their fuel needs as well, complaining that middle men have taken advantage of the American poor by pushing up the prices of gasoline and diesel unnecessarily high.
"We could also help some poor communities in the United States, directly selling them gasoline," Chavez said. He did not explain how the direct sales would work.
Although he is disliked in Washington, Venezuelans overwhelmingly supported Chavez in a failed recall effort by the opposition.
Venezuela has demanded in the past that the United States crack down on Cuban and Venezuelan "terrorists" in Florida who they say are plotting against Chavez with conspirators in Venezuela.
Chavez, a former army paratrooper, also has accused Washington of backing a short-lived coup against him in 2002, a charge U.S. officials have denied. Chavez is up for re-election next year, and polls suggest he is the favorite.
Bernardo Alverez, the Venezuelan ambassador to Washington, said Tuesday that "it is essential that the U.S. government guarantee his safety when he visits this country in the future. ... We are concerned about the safety of our president."