- The Washington Times - Friday, December 8, 2000

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela denied yesterday that he is funding revolutionary groups in neighboring countries, and he denounced a U.S. diplomat as an "agitator" for giving credibility to the accusations.

Mr. Chavez, whose left-wing rhetoric and friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro have alarmed U.S. officials, assailed a published report that the United States was investigating whether Venezuela was aiding rebels in Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador.

He delivered his message in a rambling, three-hour news conference with reporters in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas and by two-way video link in Washington.

At one point, he brandished two rifles that he said had the same serial numbers as rifles that the Colombian government claims to have seized from Marxist rebels.

"Are they cloning rifles in Colombia?" asked Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Chavez said that since he was elected in 1998, no guns and rifles have been lost to Colombian rebels and he has given no cash or other support to rebel peasants in Bolivia or rebel military officers in Ecuador.

Mr. Chavez criticized Peter Romero, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Latin America, who told the Miami Herald he was investigating reports Mr. Chavez was backing rebel groups in Ecuador and Bolivia.

"The personal opinion of this agitator who is Peter Romero does not represent the opinion of the Clinton administration," said Mr. Chavez, who was elected president in December 1998 and re-elected under a new constitution to a six-year term last summer.

"A big lie is circulating," said Mr. Chavez, a former paratrooper who spent two years in prison for leading a failed 1992 military coup.

He blamed "oligarchs" in Colombia and anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Miami for spreading "lies."

The Herald on Tuesday quoted Mr. Romero as saying: "There are indications of Chavez government support for violent indigenous movements in Bolivia … . In the case of Ecuador, it included support for rebellious army officers."

Mr. Chavez said yesterday he has never met the Bolivian and Ecuadorean men named by the Herald and has given them no weapons or cash.

Yesterday, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker backed away from Mr. Romero's comments, noting they referred to newspaper reports that the U.S. government was examining.

"The headlines in Latin America said the United States is investigating Chavez," said Mr. Reeker in an interview. "That's completely wrong.

"Romero's comments refer to third-party reports [about possible Chavez aid to rebels], not U.S. reports. We can't confirm their accuracy.

"We now welcome statements from Venezuela that these reports are not correct."

Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been strained since Mr. Chavez visited Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in August over oil issues, and hosted Cuba's Mr. Castro in a public show of friendship in July.

The United States also is quietly fuming at Mr. Chavez for uniting oil-exporting countries behind a supply reduction last year that led oil prices to jump from under $10 per barrel to more than $30 this year.

U.S. officials also worry about Mr. Chavez's commitment to democracy after he used his enormous popularity among the poor to neutralize the legislature, bypass the two old political parties, write a new constitution and extend his own term in office.

Lately, the United States also is upset because Mr. Chavez questions the U.S. decision to supply Colombia's army with Black Hawk military helicopters and other weapons and aid worth more than $1 billion to fight drug traffickers.

"We have strong concerns about the military aspects of Plan Colombia and the consequences it can generate," said Mr. Chavez yesterday of the drug war.

Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Panama share his concern that a Colombian conflict could spread drugs, crime, rebels and refugees, he said.

Colombia recently withdrew its ambassador from Caracas after Venezuela let two guerrilla leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attend a Latin American Parliament meeting held there.

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