- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela Barely two days after torrential rains caused mudslides that buried tens of thousands of people alive, U.S. air crews arrived at the international airport near Caracas to participate in search-and-rescue efforts.
But no one would know of the American relief presence based on comments from a leading official in Venezuela's new government, Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel.
The United States has spearheaded aid to Venezuela, Latin America's oldest democracy and a leading supplier of oil to the United States.
More than 25,000 Venezuelans are estimated to have died since the floods and mudslides hit last Wednesday, one of Latin America's worst natural disasters this century. Another 7,000 are missing, and more than 150,000 are homeless.
In response, the United States has so far committed nearly $3.4 million. Since Friday, at least eight U.S. Black Hawk helicopters have stood out among the waves of private and military helicopters participating in the rescue effort.
But from the start, Mr. Rangel's press releases and public statements appear to have minimized the role of the United States.
Political observers say they're not surprised, given Mr. Rangel's left-of-center views, admiration for Cuban President Fidel Castro and animosity toward the United States.
A spokesman in the Foreign Ministry told The Washington Times that Mr. Rangel, in fact, has been evenhanded in acknowledging international support from all nations and in giving credit where credit is due. Any opinion to the contrary would be a matter of "perception," added the spokesman.
However, the United States appeared as an afterthought when Mr. Rangel issued his first press release about the disaster on Dec. 17, as U.S. pilots were already undertaking rescue operations.
"Australia, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, Japan, Peru and Switzerland have made commitments of national aid," said the statement's first paragraph. Not until the fifth paragraph did Mr. Rangel acknowledge the United States, stating simply that the "U.S. is planning to help."
During a later television interview, Mr. Rangel ticked off a list of countries that had promised to help without even mentioning the American role.
On local television channels, meanwhile, Venezuelans have seen President Hugo Chavez effusively thanking President Clinton and the United States for the outpouring of aid, funds and technical personnel.
Indeed, by last Saturday, images of American pilots and U.S. helicopters were being broadcast on Venezuelan television channels, which have been providing continuous coverage of the disaster.
However, Mr. Rangel, a leftist former broadcast journalist and failed presidential candidate, still seemed interested in playing politics with the disaster.
In one televised news conference, Mr. Rangel pressed by Venezuelan reporters about the obvious arrival of U.S. aid felt it important to point out that the U.S. government's initial $200,000 came "not from the U.S. government, but from the U.S. Embassy."
And while no Foreign Ministry statement was immediately forthcoming expressing gratitude for U.S. aid, Mr. Rangel did take the trouble on Saturday, Dec. 18, to issue a press release noting that Mr. Castro had promised Mr. Chavez, in a personal letter, to immediately send 130 doctors and other medical specialists. "Cordially, Fidel," the letter was signed.
Meanwhile, U.S. pilots were in the thick of rescue activities, including potentially risky night search-and-rescue flights.
U.S. pilots, as of Tuesday, had rescued 4,000 people in 200 flights, and U.S. transport aircraft had delivered more than 150 tons of relief supplies, according to a U.S. Embassy statement.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman declined to characterize Mr. Rangel's comments.
He noted, however, that on Dec. 21, Ambassador John F. Maisto sent Mr. Rangel a 1 and 1/2-page letter detailing U.S. aid, but he said the letter was "not necessarily unusual."
One political observer noted that Mr. Rangel, who is in his 70s, is one of a group of ambitious leftists who befriended Mr. Chavez after he led a failed 1992 coup attempt. The group tends to have a "romantic opinion of Fidel Castro" and a resentment of U.S. hegemony, but, privately, is "grateful for U.S. aid and are asking for all they can get."
"Venezuela is not on its knees, it's on its elbows," said one political observer, who asked not to be named.
"This is all political posturing," said another source, referring to Mr. Rangel's pro-Castro press release and apparently grudging acceptance of U.S. aid. The source, who also asked not to be named, added U.S. Embassy officials are content with Mr. Chavez's effusive public gratitude toward the United States, which they regard as genuine and reflective of close U.S.-Venezuelan ties.
Mr. Chavez is self-educated, but he's a quick learner and pragmatic, the source added, expressing hope that the Venezuelan president would eventually cut his ties with Mr. Rangel and a small group of hard-line and rigid leftist advisers.
"Venezuelans are deeply grateful for the international support, including the massive and immediate support from the U.S.," said Antonio A. Herrera-Vaillant of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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