Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Friday named as defense minister General Henry Rangel Silva, who the United States has described as a “drug kingpin” linked to cocaine smuggling from neighboring Colombia.
The socialist Chavez, who calls the United States a decadent empire bent on exploiting developing countries, has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations that his government has turned a blind eye to drug trafficking.
“This good soldier, this humble soldier … this fighter for the people, today I publicly designate him as the new defense minister of the Republic,” Chavez said during a televised religious ceremony.
He is expected to shuffle his cabinet in the coming days to pave the way for several of his current ministers to run in regional elections later this year.
In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Rangel and another high-ranking officer of materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of Colombia’s FARC rebels. Both men deny any wrongdoing.
Venezuela, which shares a long, largely unpoliced border with Colombia, has become a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine on its way to consumer nations.
Chavez ended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005 amid accusations that its agents were spying and violating Venezuelan sovereignty.
He says his government has invested millions of dollars on fighting drugs and points to extradition of accused druglords to Colombia and an increase in drug-related arrests as evidence of the country’s anti-narcotics efforts.
Diplomatic ties between Venezuela and the United States have been tense for years even though the South American nation still provides close to 10 percent of U.S. crude and fuel imports.
Washington in September accused four close Chavez allies of helping to provide arms to the guerrilla group FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a charge Venezuela dismissed as “abusive.”
(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth for Reuters; Editing by Eric Walsh; photo: aporrea.org)
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