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U.S. relations with leftist Latin America chill

Relations between the U.S.  and Bolivia and Venezuela have chilled this week with the expulsion of U.S. ambassadors in the respective countries. Now Honduras has become part of the rift.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A diplomatic crisis between the United States and Latin America countries allied with Venezuela President Hugo Chavez has led to a series of tit-for-tat moves this week that has brought relations near an all-time low.

It started on Wednesday, when Bolivian President Evo Morales said he would expel the U.S. ambassador in Bolivia for allegedly inciting violent opposition protests. U.S. officials angered by Morales' decision, expelled Bolivia's top diplomat from Washington.

Then on Thursday, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, Morales' close friend and ideological kin, followed suit. Chavez gave the U.S. ambassador in Caracas 72 hours to leave his country and said he’s recalling his ambassador from Washington.

On Friday, the United States imposed sanctions on two senior Venezuelan government officials accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of aiding drug traffickers in Colombia.

Those named were Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios and Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva, both high-ranking intelligence officials who are aides to Chavez. A former government minister, Ramon Emilio Rodriguez Chacin, was also named.

The U.S. Treasury said the three materially assisted the narcotics trafficking activities of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, describing the leftist group as a narco-terrorist organization.

Washington was also preparing to eject Venezuela's top diplomat in the United States, a U.S. official told Reuters, although Chavez tried to pre-empt that move by telling him to pack his bags and return home Thursday.

Honduras, which experts say remains friendly with the United States, said on Friday that it was indefinitely postponing the accreditation of the U.S. ambassador to that nation.

President Manuel Zelaya said Honduras was not breaking relations with the United States, but is supporting Venezuela and Bolivia.

At the center of the latest diplomatic clash is Chavez, a vocal opponent of the Bush administration who has won popular support in his country and in parts of Latin America by bashing the United States.

Relationship on the skids
"As far as Venezuela's concern, this is a ratcheting down in a relationship that has been on the skids for a long time," Peter DeShazo, director of the America's program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told "It may be a low point, but relations have been in a downward spiral for a long time."

DeShazo said Bolivia and Venezuela are traditional allies, and more recently the leaders of both countries have become enthusiastic participants in a newly established multilateral organization founded by Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Dubbed "ALBA," an acronym in Spanish that also means "dawn," the group's stated goal is to act as a counterweight to U.S. dominance in the region. Nicaragua is also a member.

Violent clashes over Bolivia's future, which have claimed eight lives, triggered the diplomatic crisis, as Latin American allies demanded that Washington stay out of their affairs.

President Evo Morales said Wednesday that he was expelling U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg for allegedly inciting violent opposition protests and supporting Bolivia's conservative opposition.

Morales, DeShavo said, has had a "rocky relationship" with the United States since he campaigned for office in 2005 and the U.S. openly supported his opponents.

Anti-Morales protests reached a crescendo on Tuesday with the sacking and burning of government offices in Santa Cruz in which at least 10 people were reported injured.

Information from Reuters and The Associated Press is included in this report.