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Hugo Chavez selects drug kingpin as defense minister

The Americas Post - Drug trafficking accusations are no obstacle for the Chavez administration

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez this week appointed a new defense minister, described by the United States as a “drug kingpin” involved in cocaine smuggling from next-door Colombia.

“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 announced while naming General Henry Rangel Silva to the post.

In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Rangel and another top Venezuelan officer of supporting narcotics trafficking operations by Colombian FARC guerrillas.  Both men denied any connection.

President Chavez  has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations that his government has turned a blind eye to drug trafficking.  He in turn accuses the United States of being a decadent empire that exploits developing countries.

The Venezuelan leader is expected to reshuffle his cabinet in the next few months to allow several of his current ministers to run in regional elections later this year.

Sharing a long border with Colombia, Venezuela has become a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine en route to consumer nations.  Chavez suspended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005 when he accused its agents of spying and violating Venezuelan sovereignty.

He claims his administration has invested millions of dollars in anti-narcotic operations, pointing to the extradition of accused druglords to Colombia and an increase in drug-related arrests as proof of Venezuela’s efforts.

Diplomatic relations between Venezuela and the United States have been icy for years, in spite of the fact that South American nation still provides nearly 10 percent of US fuel imports.

In September, Washington accused four close Chavez allies of providing arms to FARC rebels in Colombia, a charge which Venezuela described as “abusive.”