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U.S.-Venezuela Tensions Rise Over Envoy Flap

BY Larisa Epatko  December 21, 2010 at 10:30 AM EDT

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Venezuela on Monday withdrew permission for a U.S. ambassador to take office in Caracas, ratcheting up tensions between the two countries once again. The move came days after the Venezuelan legislature granted President Hugo Chavez new decree powers.

According to the U.S. State Department, Venezuela’s acting foreign minister told the U.S. Embassy that Chavez’s government had denied approval for the chosen ambassador, Larry Palmer, who still awaits U.S. Senate approval.

In August, Palmer caused a stir when he suggested in written responses during his Senate confirmation process that morale is low in Venezuela’s military and expressed concern that Colombian rebels could find refuge in Venezuela.

Palmer “disrespected Venezuela, a group of honorable generals from the armed forces, the government, the Venezuelan constitution,” Chavez said on state television, The Associated Press reported. “How could he be ambassador? He disqualified himself.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Monday that the United States had no intention of withdrawing Palmer’s nomination and that if the Senate confirms his nomination, he would be sent to Caracas.

The sentiment expressed by Palmer not surprisingly touched a nerve in Venezuela, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. Palmer may be very qualified for the post, said Shifter, but “given that this produced such a strong reaction, it’s hard to see even if he did serve in Venezuela, how effective he would be given this tense climate and the cold reaction to what he said.”

A better option would be for the administration to choose someone else for the post, he said.

The U.S. government also has been critical of new decree powers that the Venezuelan Parliament granted Chavez on Friday.

Chavez said he needed the fast-track powers to respond to flooding and mudslides caused by torrential rains earlier this month that displaced more than 100,000 people.

Chavez is expected to use the new authority to raise the sales tax to generate funds for reconstruction efforts, said Rachel Jones, reporting from Caracas for GlobalPost. Some people are concerned with other ways he might use the new powers, and reaction on the street has been mixed, she said.

“A lot of people are interested in supporting those affected by the flooding, and some of them believe he should have certain powers that will enable him to help them more,” she said. “But a lot of (other) people think that it’s a little extensive, the amount of power that he’s been given for the amount of time and the variety of areas he has now been given to legislate.”

Venezuela is no stranger to presidents using decree powers. Chavez has used them three times in the past, and other presidents have as well, said Jones. “It’s something that’s been common throughout Venezuela’s democratic history.”

In the past, Chavez has used the decree powers in the final days before they expired, but people expect him to use them sooner this time before a new National Assembly is seated Jan. 5.

In September elections, Chavez’s Socialist Party won a majority of the 165-seat assembly, but not a two-thirds majority that would have permitted it to easily pass major legislation.

Opposition leaders have expressed concern that Chavez will use the law to push through reforms that voters rejected in 2007, such as reorganizing political regions to allow him to appoint vice presidents above elected mayors and governors, Jones said.

The move could backfire if people within the country think he’s gone too far, said Shifter, but Chavez might feel that if he controls all institutions, he can handle that kind of discontent, he said.

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