News & Current Affairs

September 13, 2008

Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute

Expulsions stoke US-LatAm dispute

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

US-Venezuelan relations are said to have hit a new low

A series of tit-for-tat expulsions has left the US without ambassadors in three Latin American countries.

Bolivia and Venezuela have expelled their US envoys, accusing Washington of trying to oust Bolivia’s government.

Meanwhile, Honduras has refused the credentials of a new US ambassador, postponing his appointment.

Washington has responded by throwing out envoys from Bolivia and Venezuela and freezing the assets of three aides to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The US regretted the actions of Venezuela and Bolivia, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

“This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders as they face internal challenges, and an inability to communicate effectively internationally in order to build international support,” he said.

Bolivian and Venezuelan allegations – including that the US supports continuing anti-government protests in Bolivia – were false “and the leaders of those countries know it”, Mr McCormack added.

Relations between the US and Latin American opponents such as Mr Chavez had seemed to be on a holding pattern – but the situation has changed in a matter of days.

This week’s arrival in Venezuela of two Russian bomber planes taking part in a military exercise is not thought to have helped the situation.

And with more joint military exercises in the pipeline, our correspondent says it could take a while for tensions to subside.

Bolivia accusations

Freezing the assets of the three Venezuelan aides, the US Treasury accused them of “materially assisting the narcotics trafficking” of rebels in Colombia.

All three had “armed, abetted and funded the Farc, even as it terrorised and kidnapped innocents”, according to a statement from the US Treasury referring to the left-wing rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Analysts say the trio – Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios, Henry de Jesus Rangel Silva and Ramon Rodriguez Chacin – are members of Mr Chavez’s inner circle.

Bolivian President Evo Morales (10 September)

Evo Morales accused the US envoy of meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs

Mr Carvajal Barrios is a military intelligence director who has protected Farc drug shipments from seizure, claimed the US statement.

Mr Rangel Silva is another intelligence chief who had pushed for greater co-operation between Venezuela and the Farc, the US Treasury alleged.

And Mr Rodriguez Chacin, who until Monday was Venezuela’s justice minister, is Caracas’ main “weapons contact” for the Farc, the statement charged.

The flurry of diplomatic expulsions began on Thursday, when Bolivia threw out the American ambassador to La Paz, Philip Goldberg.

President Evo Morales said the US envoy had been siding with a violent opposition movement in the east of Bolivia, where groups are demanding greater autonomy and a bigger share of gas export revenues.

‘Go to hell’

US officials said the allegations were baseless, but nonetheless expelled the Bolivian ambassador to Washington in retaliation.

This prompted the Venezuelan leader to step into the fray alongside his Bolivian ally.

President Chavez gave US ambassador Patrick Duddy 72 hours to leave Caracas, telling him: “Go to hell 100 times.”

On Friday, Washington responded by giving the Venezuelan ambassador his marching orders.

Now Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has refused to accept the credentials of a new US ambassador.

“We are not breaking relations with the United States. We only are [doing this] is solidarity with Morales, who has denounced the meddling of the United States in Bolivia’s internal affairs,” Mr Zelaya said.

In a separate development, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega said he supports Bolivia, but did not announce whether he would take any action against the US envoy in Managua.

A growing number of left-wing Latin American governments have backed Mr Chavez’s anti-US rhetoric.

The region has also benefited from the Venezuelan leader’s generosity with oil.

But the US is a leading trade partner and a major aid donor to Latin America, so few in the region will be happy relations have plummeted to this new low, according to our correspondent.

He says this diplomatic row is serious but will probably soon blow over, while Bolivia’s problems are only likely to get worse.

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August 7, 2008

Red Cross probes emblem ‘misuse’

Red Cross probes emblem ‘misuse’

Red cross symbol

Misuse of the symbol undermines Red Cross neutrality

The International Committee of the Red Cross has voiced graveĀ  concern over what it says is Colombia’s apparent “deliberate misuse” of its symbol.

The ICRC said it had seen video footage that suggested the emblem was used deliberately in July’s military mission to free 15 hostages from rebel hands.

The government has apologised to the ICRC but also condemned the leak of the military video to Colombian TV.

Intentional misuse of the symbol would be a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva-based ICRC says the footage shown on Colombian TV on Monday indicates that the emblem was being used before the operation to free the hostages from Farc guerrillas had even begun, indicating intentional misuse.

“If authenticated, these images would clearly establish an improper use of the Red Cross emblem, which we deplore,” said ICRC deputy director of operations Dominik Stillhart.

Mr Stillhart said they were seeking further clarification from the Colombian government.

‘Nervous soldier’

Rescuers tricked rebels into releasing French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages by posing as international aid workers.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe subsequently acknowledged that a Red Cross symbol was worn by a member of the military taking part in the 2 July rescue mission.

Colombian Defence Minsier Juan Manuel Santos (left) and armed forces chief Gen Freddy padilla (right) on 5 August

The leak of the video could amount to treason, the defence minister says

Mr Uribe said he had apologised to the Red Cross for the error, which he said had been made by a nervous soldier acting against orders.

Speaking on Tuesday, after the video was shown on Colombian TV, Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos apologised again to the ICRC.

“The emblem…was used from the beginning of the operation. We are very sorry that this has happened. But the government, the president and (armed forces chief) General Padilla said the truth that we knew at the time,” Mr Santos said.

But Mr Santos also condemned the leak of the video, saying those responsible had been identified and would be punished.

“This video contains material that was leaked by members of the security forces, from our army. This leak was a product of disloyalty, possibly corruption or even treason because it puts at risk the lives of people who are dedicated to defending the fatherland,” he said.

Neutrality

The Colombian government has said the rescue was the result of long preparation, eavesdropping on rebel communications and deception of guerrillas on the ground, allowing the hostages to be liberated without loss of life.

Officials also stressed how the mission had been carried out without loss of life.

Falsely portraying military personnel as Red Cross workers is against the Geneva Conventions because it could put humanitarian workers at risk when carrying out missions in war zones.

It also undermines the neutrality of the Red Cross.

At the end of July, Farc guerrillas handed eight people they had kidnapped the week before to ICRC representatives, suggesting the rebels have not lost faith in the humanitarian organisation, correspondents say.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) have been fighting the Colombian state for more than four decades and are believed to still hold several hundred hostages.

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