President Hugo Chavez has appointed the commander of Venezuela's navy as his new defense minister, replacing a close confidant who he has tapped as a candidate in upcoming regional elections.

Speaking during a telephone call broadcast Monday on state television, Chavez appointed Navy Cmdr. Diego Molero as defense minister.

Molero, an admiral who has served as the navy's intelligence chief, replaces Army Gen. Henry Rangel Silva.

Rangel is a close confidant of Chavez who will represent the president's ruling party in Dec. 16 elections to choose state governors and mayors.

The United States has accused Rangel of aiding drug traffickers and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Chavez picked Rangel to run for the governorship of Trujillo, a state bordering neighboring Colombia.