MIAMI and CARACAS, Venezuela - The United States and Venezuela have fallen out again; this time over drugs.
The White House announced Thursday that it had "decertified" Venezuela as an ally in the drug war due to official corruption and a lack of cooperation.
The decision is likely to plunge already poor relations between the two countries to a new low, analysts warn, a worrisome trend because Venezuela is the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
But the United States seems determined nevertheless to challenge the leadership of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. A fiery leftist and former army colonel, Chavez has lately emerged as the heir apparent to Cuban President Fidel Castro as the leader of anti-U.S. sentiment in the hemisphere.
Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel rejected the report Thursday, saying his country "doesn't recognize" Washington's "moral, judicial, ethical or political authority" to judge the counterdrug performance of other countries. He noted that the United States is the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs.
The annual certification process has come under attack as a flawed foreign policy tool.
"It's a very blunt instrument, especially in a highly charged political atmosphere," said John Walsh, a critic of U.S. drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a private think tank based in the capital.
Others warned that it played into Chavez's hands, noting that his "anti-imperialist" stance has raised his profile among Latin America's poor.
"This is a classic lose-lose situation," said Mark Falcoff, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy research group in Washington. "Chavez wants to be decertified."
Some veteran Chavez watchers say the Venezuelan leader's long-term goal is to sever the strong ties that traditionally have bound his country to the United States. Pro-Chavez ideologues speak of the need to build a socialist state free from U.S. influence and tied instead to Cuba.
The drug dispute "shouldn't come as a surprise," says Albeto Garrido, one of Venezuela's top political analysts. "It's a strategy of Chavez to keep parting the ways, untying one knot at a time."
Chavez has already cut once strong military ties with the United States. The last major link is oil; Venezuela depends on sales to the U.S. market for 60 percent of petroleum exports. But Chavez is openly working to change that and has started shipping fuel oil to China.
Officials addressed none of that Thursday when they announced the decision, focusing entirely on the drug issue.
U.S. officials point to an alarming increase in official drug corruption. According to the State Department, Venezuela had "failed demonstrably" to abide by its international antidrug commitments.
A White House "statement of explanation" about Venezuela said 165 tons of cocaine moved through the country last year, along with increasing quantities of heroin.
Venezuela and Myanmar, formerly called Burma, are the only two countries on the U.S. blacklist, which nominally bans them from receiving U.S. funds. Critics of the decision say Venezuela stands to lose little or nothing. Its $50-billion oil industry disqualifies it for most forms of U.S. aid. Counterdrug assistance from the United States amounts to only a few hundred thousand dollars, including U.S. eavesdropping and surveillance equipment.
The White House said it would continue to fund prodemocracy programs, though these have come under attack as back-door efforts to support Venezuela's weak political opposition to Chavez.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela have steadily deteriorated since Chavez accused Washington in April 2002 of backing a failed coup. No evidence of direct U.S. involvement has ever emerged. But U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized Chavez's "undemocratic" actions and his "destabilizing" effect on the region.
From the outset of his presidency in 1999, Chavez has refused to allow U.S. drug surveillance in Venezuelan airspace, arguing it violates the country's sovereignty.
Even so, until this year U.S. officials said Venezuela's cooperation on the drugs issue was satisfactory.
Things started to go sour in August 2004 when Gen. Frank Morgado, considered a drug trafficking suspect by the United States, was appointed to head the national guard's antidrugs division.
This coincided with what other foreign drugs agencies agree was a significant worsening of drug-related corruption in the Venezuelan security forces. Evidence began surfacing in the Venezuelan press of the existence of a so-called "Cartel of the Suns," named for the insignia on the epaulets of the country's generals, and run by senior military officers.
This cartel is alleged by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to run about 3 to 5 tons of drugs a month through Venezuela.
Last month Chavez suspended a drugs cooperation agreement with the United States, accusing the DEA of espionage. Meanwhile, Washington revoked the U.S. visas of half a dozen top Venezuelan military officers, including the head of a narcotics squad, on suspicion they were linked to drug trafficking.
Chavez threatened to cut off all dealings with the DEA and even revoke the diplomatic immunity of agents based in Caracas. He later retreated, perhaps in response to a last-ditch mediation by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Specter met with Chavez on Aug. 17 and afterward declared there was "a window of opportunity . . . to resolve the disagreement." In a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he said it would be "very helpful" if the Bush administration toned down its anti-Chavez "rhetoric."
Chavez fired Morgado, the implicated general, and also drew up a new drug cooperation agreement, which was submitted to the U.S. Embassy earlier this week.
But the damage had been done. State Department officials say the decision to decertify was a "close call," with the White House in the end deciding the evidence of corruption was simply too hard to ignore.
David Adams is the Times Latin America correspondent. Phil Gunson is a Times freelance correspondent based in Caracas.