Reuters – 2004-06-21 14:15:26
CARACAS, Venezuela, May 13 – Venezuela has asked the United States military mission to leave liaison offices at armed forces bases in the country, the American ambassador, Charles Shapiro, said Wednesday.
The request appeared to signal a further downgrading of military links between the countries, whose relations have become strained under the government of President Hugo Chávez. It was sent to the American Embassy on Friday by the defense minister, Gen. Jorge García.
American attaché staff members were asked to leave offices at Fuerte Tiuna armed forces headquarters in Caracas and at other military installations, Mr. Shapiro said. That would mean they would have to work from the embassy or other rented premises.
Mr. Shapiro declined to say how the move would affect military cooperation with Venezuela, which has decreased since Mr. Chávez took office in early 1999.
American officers have been advising on antidrug operations and training local pilots who are flying American-made F-16 fighters. United States defense officials in Venezuela declined to specify the size of the mission.
In August 2001, Venezuela’s government asked the American military mission to leave the Fuerte Tiuna site it had occupied for more than 50 years. But the mission continued to operate there, even through the coup the following year that briefly ousted Mr. Chávez.
Asked why the new request to vacate the offices had been made, Mr. García said, “Because they are still there.”
Relations between the United States and Venezuela, its biggest Latin American oil supplier, have deteriorated since Mr. Chávez weathered the coup. He has accused the United States of backing opposition efforts to oust him, a charge denied by the Bush administration.
The administration has criticized Mr. Chávez’s close alliance with President Fidel Castro of Cuba. In turn, Mr. Chávez has characterized the criticism as more examples of American meddling.
Mr. García asked the American military personnel to leave Fuerte Tiuna days before Venezuela’s security forces announced they had captured a large force of Colombian paramilitaries on Sunday. The estimated 90 Colombians are being held and questioned at Fuerte Tiuna.