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The Miami Herald September 08, 2006

Close Miami office, U.S. tells Venezuela

By Pablo Bachelet

WASHINGTON - Taking another jab at Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the State Department has ordered his country's air force to close its purchasing office in Miami.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry reacted furiously Thursday, calling the decision, relayed in a diplomatic note on Tuesday, ''aggressive'' and ``imperialist.''

The Miami operation has about a dozen Venezuelan officers who oversee the purchase of military equipment and other supplies for all the Venezuelan armed forces. They have until Sept. 30 to comply with the U.S. order.

The State Department also ordered the closure of another Venezuelan purchasing office at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio. But Venezuelan officials say they voluntarily closed that office earlier this month.

The leftist Chávez has been an outspoken critic of Washington, and in May, the Bush administration tightened an arms embargo on Venezuela after accusing it of failing to fully cooperate in the war on terrorism. The State Department alleges the country is not responding to U.S. requests for information on terrorism suspects.

The U.S. government had previously decreed a ban on arms sales to Venezuela, but was allowing the delivery of parts that would keep Venezuelan aircraft flight-worthy. The May designation, which takes effect Oct. 1, stops all arms sales, including flight safety equipment.

`NOT NECESSARY'

Jan Edmonson, a State Department spokeswoman, said the May designation also meant it was ``not necessary or appropriate for the Venezuelan government to maintain the military acquisition office.''

Venezuela set up the office, near Miami International Airport on Northwest 15th Street, in 1985, when Venezuela was considered a close U.S. ally.

Arguing that his country needs to diversify its sources of military hardware, Chávez has already embarked on a multibillion-dollar weapons purchasing spree that includes 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 24 modern Sukhoi fighter jets, Mi-17 helicopter transports and Mi-35 gunships from Russia and patrol gunboats from Spain.

Caracas remains a top foreign supplier of oil to the United States. But relations between the two governments has deteriorated into an exchange of often bitter accusations.

The Bush administration has complained that Chávez has not done enough to combat human and drug trafficking and has been undermining democracies in Latin America. Chávez, who has established close ties with Iran, Cuba and Syria, says the United States was behind a 2002 coup against him.

U.S. SUPPLIES

According to John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a defense think tank based in Alexandria, Va., U.S.-supplied equipment is still widely used by the Venezuelan armed forces. Besides 22 F-16 jets, 12 of the 35 aircraft of the Venezuelan navy are U.S.-supplied craft. Venezuela also has five C-130 military transport aircraft, among other equipment.

Pike said the U.S. squeeze was not going to ''completely shut down'' the Venezuelans, but would force them to make expensive adjustments.

The U.S. government sold Venezuela $34 million worth of licensed military material last year but on contracts that were approved at the end of 2004. In 2005, Washington approved sales of only $8.5 million.


Copyright 2006, The Miami Herald