CARACAS, Venezuela – The U.S. ambassador's suggestion that better ties were possible with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez met a blunt reply on Wednesday when Chavez accused the ambassador of lying about drug trafficking.
The lack of counter-drug cooperation between Venezuela and the U.S. has been one of many diplomatic sticking points between the two countries — one that has worsened as Chavez has accused American anti-drug agents of involvement in espionage.
"A little while ago, the U.S. ambassador in Caracas told a big lie. He should retract it if it's really true that (U.S. officials) want good relations like they've been saying," Chavez told reporters who questioned him during an unrelated event on Wednesday.
Ambassador William Brownfield told the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional this week that U.S. officials estimate that the amount of cocaine smuggled through Venezuela has increased by 20 to 30 metric tons (22 to 33 U.S. tons) a year over the last five years, reaching about 300 metric tons (330 U.S. tons) in 2006.
"The drug traffickers have identified a vacuum because there is less police collaboration than in any other country ... and as a result they take advantage of Venezuela to move their product toward the Caribbean," Brownfield told El Nacional.
Brownfield also told El Nacional that Washington is seeking a pragmatic relationship with Chavez's government, cooperating on trade, energy and drug issues despite political differences.
Chavez called Brownfield's claims about drugs "a lack of respect for the truth" and said they were "absolutely false."
He said consumption by Americans was the root of the drug problem and accused the U.S. government of turning from communism to the drug war as an excuse to intervene in Latin America and justify its military presence in the region.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment Wednesday.
Venezuela, due to its location next to Colombia, is a major transit route for cocaine headed to the United States and Europe. But Venezuelan officials say they are fighting the drug war with increasing success, claiming that since Chavez broke off cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last year, the amount of illegal drugs seized has doubled.
Brownfield has urged Venezuela to sign a new agreement with the DEA, but Chavez revived his earlier claims that officials of that agency had been involved in spying — charges denied by Washington.
"They had secret bases here ... the DEA blackmailed Venezuelan police and military officers in order to conduct political espionage," and support efforts to destabilize the country, Chavez said, without elaborating.
Following Chavez's re-election on Dec. 3 by a wide margin, both the U.S. and Venezuelan governments have shown cautious hope for more dialogue despite deep differences.
But Chavez said Brownfield was playing the "bad cop" and was threatening the credibility of U.S. overtures: "It seems the ambassador here doesn't toe that line."
Chavez threatened to kick out Brownfield earlier this year, accusing him of trying to provoke confrontations with his frequent trips into pro-Chavez slums to hand out donations to libraries and youth baseball teams.