Chávez appointment - a slap to Colombia?

Venezuela President Hugo Chávez's new defense minister is worrying officials in both the US and Colombia because of his links to Colombia's FARC rebels.

Fernando Llano/AP
Incoming Venezuela's Defense Minister Gen. Henry Rangel Silva attends his swearing-in ceremony at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday Jan. 17.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has tried to build better relations with his counterpart in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, who once accused the Colombian president of trying to have him assassinated.

But as Mr. Chávez enters election year with stepped up rhetoric aimed at Washington and the opposition at home, Mr. Santos may be caught in the crossfire. One of the primary sources of antagonism between the two nations was Chávez’s alleged links to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The links are personified by Venezuelan Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, who was accused by the United States in 2008 of aiding drug trafficking and pushing for cooperation between the Venezuelan government and FARC.

Chávez swore in General Rangel Silva this week as Venezuela’s new defense minister.

The ceremony came just days after two major Colombian news outlets published correspondence which they claim proves that Rangel Silva was for a long time the principle contact between the Venezuelan government and FARC and also shows links between the general and FARC’s newly appointed leader Rodrigo Londono, also known as Timochenko.

Authorities in both Washington and Bogotá will have grimaced at the appointment. Chávez, however, defended his decision in typically theatrical language.

“If our defense minister is attacked by imperialism and its lackeys and if our defense minister is attacked by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, it is because we have a tremendous defence minister,” said Chávez as he spoke to the thousands of troops gathered at Fort Tiuna in Caracas. “[They] have no proof,” Chávez added. “It is all untrue.”

It is not just US and Colombian diplomats who will be worried. With elections due in less than 10 months, and primaries within a month, there are concerns that Chávez is asserting his control on the army in preparation.

Rangel Silva even declared last year that the Venezuelan military was “absolutely loyal” to Chávez.

If elections don’t go Chávez’s way in October, there are worries that the military will fail to support the alternative successor; this would inevitably destabilize the OPEC-member country.

Chávez did say in a 10-hour state of the nation speech on Friday that he would honor election results and show off the “political maturity” the country had acquired during his now 13-year Bolivarian revolution.

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