Caracas, Venezuela, February 3, 2006—Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez yesterday told the U.S. embassy that its naval attaché, Captain John Correa was expelled from the country for spying. The Bush administration retaliated the move by declaring the chief of staff to the Venezuelan ambassador in the U.S., Jenny Figueredo, to be “persona non grata,” a diplomatic term traditionally used for expelling embassy staff.
Yesterday, Chavez said Captain Correa was receiving information from, “traitorous Venezuelan military personnel” and is thus considered “persona non grata.” He made the announcement yesterday during a TV speech celebrating 7 years of his government, saying Correa, “must leave the country immediately.”
The Bush administration’s reaction was swift, naming Figueredo in a State Department press conference this afternoon. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said, “We don’t like to get into tit-for-tat games like this with the Venezuelan government, but they initiated this and we were forced to respond,” clarifying that unlike Correa, she is not being accused of any wrongdoing.
When asked whether Correa had done anything wrong, McCormack responded, “I would say only that he was performing his duties as a naval attaché.”
A statement from the Venezuelan embassy in the U.S. reacted to Figueredo’s expulsion by saying, “The Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela does not accept the justification for the decision [of Figueredo’s expulsion] as being part of the process of diplomatic reciprocity. On the contrary, we view it as an act of political retaliation.”
The statement went on to say, “Ms. Figueredo carried out her diplomatic functions impeccably and in full accordance with the law,” unlike Correa, who is being accused of espionage.
Last week, on January 26, the Venezuelan Vice-President, José Vicente Rangel, said 25 Venezuelan military personnel were suspected of passing state secrets to the U.S. through its embassy. U.S. Naval Attaché, Captain John Correa was named as the man through which the information was being passed.
A few days later Chavez said he had the U.S. embassy “infiltrated” and knew all their movements. Chavez said the information the Venezuelans gave to the U.S. included personal details of generals in the Venezuelan Army, naval missile practice and the operations of the civilian military reserves.
The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield said yesterday, “I don’t know the reason for the expulsion.” Brownfield also said, “We haven’t received any communication from the government explaining it.”
A U.S. State Department official said the spying charges were false. The official said, “None of the U.S. attaches was or is engaged in inappropriate activities.” The U.S. “will respond through diplomatic channels,” the official said.
According to the same official, Correa was going to return to the U.S. as part of his normal duties anyway. This was in contrast to what a U.S. embassy spokesperson said on January 31. The Embassy Spokesperson said Correa was still part of the embassy staff and would stay on unless expelled by the Venezuelans.
The Venezuelan President said, “We warn the imperialist government of the United States that if your military continues to do what that captain was doing, the next step will be to kick out the entire military mission.”
There are currently 20 members of the US military mission in Venezuela. According to the US Embassy spokesperson, only 6 have regular contact with the Venezuelan military.
The Venezuelan President said the Venezuelan military had to be, “exorcised” of the U.S. “imperialist military doctrine that has infected it.” Chavez said, “We are still cleaning up our military.”
Chavez has said in the past the US sponsored the April 2002 coup against him. Military personnel suspected of spying now were like those in the coup who, “met with the U.S. embassy and received payment in dirty dollars to commit treason against their fatherland.”
The Venezuelan President said there are, “100 patriots,” in the army for every, “traitor.” Nonetheless, the search for “traitors” in the military had to be “relentless,” Chavez said. The government will seek the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison for those caught spying, said Chavez.
Chavez said yesterday the US is, “thinking that some day they’re going to do a Panama- type operation, coming here to get me.” The Venezuelan President added, “If they want to come, then come. We’ll be waiting. Come here. I want you to.”
Panama was invaded by US forces in 1989. The Panamanian President Manuel Noriega was removed from government by US troops and taken to Miami to face trial for drug charges. The US has repeatedly denied any intention to invade Venezuela.
Rumsfeld: Chavez was elected “just as Hitler was”
Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have got steadily worse since Bush was elected in 2000. They reached a new low point yesterday as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld compared Chavez to Hitler.
Rumsfeld told the National Press Club in Washington, “We’ve got Chavez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money. He’s a person who was elected legally, just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally, and then consolidated power.”
OAS General Secretary Miguel Insulza reacted to Rumsfeld’s statement by saying, “This rhetoric does not help either one of the two [countries].”
Venezuela’s Vice-President, José Vicente Rangel, reacted much more strongly, saying, “If there is anyone, nowadays, who can be compared with Hitler, it is President Bush because he has invaded countries, has installed prisons in various parts of the world, … activities that much resemble those that Hitler carried out in Germany and in Europe.”