Chavez Threatens U.S. Ambassador

In this picture released by Venezuela's Miraflores Press, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during his national television and radio show "Hello President" in Venezuela's Carabobo state, Sunday, April 9, 2006, where he said U.S.
President Hugo Chavez threatened to expel the U.S. ambassador over a visit by the diplomat to a poor neighborhood where his car was attacked, pushing tensions between Venezuela and its top oil buyer to a new extreme.

Chavez said U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield sought to escalate tensions between the countries Friday by venturing into Coche, a pro-Chavez stronghold, where he donated baseball equipment to a youth league. As his convoy left, Chavez supporters pounded and kicked the ambassador's car and hurled eggs and tomatoes.

"The ambassador went to Coche seeking an incident," Chavez said during his weekly televised address Sunday. "It was a provocation to look for another incident, seeking an escalation."

Chavez offered muted criticism of the protesters. "We reject any kind of aggression," he said, but clearly warned the ambassador. "If you continue provoking us, go pack your bags because I'm going to throw you out of here," he said.

Chavez's ultimatum comes in response to Washington's warning of "severe diplomatic consequences" if anything similar should happen again to Brownfield, who has encountered protests three times in as many weeks. Earlier, demonstrators burned tires and torched an American flag.

Chavez's response Sunday was defiant: "If the Washington government takes some measure against Venezuela because of provocations, you will be responsible, you will have to leave here, sir. I will declare you persona non grata in Venezuela."

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Salome Hernandez told The Associated Press by phone, "The ambassador will continue to travel and we will not be intimidated."

The spike in tensions between the United States and its fourth-largest oil supplier follows months of increasingly strained ties.

Chavez has threatened in the past to halt oil exports to the United States if Washington attempts to unseat his government. In February, Washington expelled a Venezuelan diplomat in response to Chavez's expulsion of a U.S. military attache accused of spying.

Many analysts say Chavez risks losing much more from a break in commercial relations because the United States remains Venezuela's top buyer of oil and an indispensable refiner of its heavy crudes. Venezuela supplied 12 percent of U.S. crude oil imports last year.

But Chavez, who calls President Bush a madman intent on ousting him, has sought to lessen Venezuela's dependence on the U.S. market and said in February he was in contact with new buyers as part of a contingency plan.

U.S. officials deny plotting against Chavez but have accused him of undermining democracy and destabilizing Latin America. Chavez insists his government is democratic and says the United States is a destabilizing force.

Brownfield has repeatedly called for an ease in rhetoric and regularly travels into pro-Chavez slums to meet with community leaders and hand out donations, like funds for libraries and children's homes.

In the incident Friday, Chavez said Brownfield failed to advise the local mayor's office or the foreign ministry of his travel plans. Hernandez said the embassy is not required to advise those institutions but that it takes adequate precautions by regularly coordinating with law enforcement authorities for such events.

The State Department has said the attack against Brownfield's car was condoned by local officials who handed out snacks to perpetrators at the stadium. U.S. officials also accused police of doing nothing to stop the Chavez supporters.

Chavez said police had intervened to protect the convoy.

But he warned Brownfield: "With your imprudence and provocation, one of these days you could cause a grave incident."