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Heckling of Envoy Raises U.S. Ire

The ambassador to Venezuela is pelted with food. Washington says Chavez's government is behind the incident.

April 08, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — The State Department issued a warning to Venezuela on Friday after Ambassador William R. Brownfield was pelted with eggs and fruit at a public ceremony, the third incident in what U.S. officials described as a government-inspired campaign against him.

The State Department summoned Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez in Washington, and Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told him any further incidents would result in "severe diplomatic repercussions." Those could include restrictions of Alvarez's travel or his expulsion, government sources said.

Brownfield was not injured in the incident, but police did not try to intervene to stop it, U.S. Embassy officials said.

U.S.-Venezuelan relations are under increasing strain. Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, commonly refers to President Bush as an idiot and, in his regular nationwide television addresses, accuses the United States of trying to bend Latin America to its will.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this year compared Chavez to Adolf Hitler. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others have stated that they believe Chavez is a destabilizing influence in the region, and they have criticized his ties to Cuba and Iran.

Brownfield was handing out baseball gloves, bats and catchers' equipment to 140 youths at a sports stadium when several dozen protesters showed up and began throwing objects at the ambassador, U.S. officials said.

An official who identified himself as police commander Luis Villasana then approached Brownfield and ordered him and his staff out of the stadium.

Brownfield was accompanied by two former Major League Baseball players from Venezuela and had addressed a crowd that included the youths' parents. Before leaving, he told reporters at the scene that his intention had been to show baseball "as transcending politics."

Protesters on about 12 motorcycles then chased the ambassador's motorcade after he left the stadium and continued to throw objects at the car and pound on it when his vehicle became stuck in traffic, witnesses said.

A State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Washington considered the incident to be "organized violence against the ambassador and an effort to intimidate, and we are not about to accept any explanation that this was spontaneous protest."

There was no reaction late Friday from spokesmen for Chavez. Luis Martinez, press director for the mayor of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, said his office had not directed anyone to attend Brownfield's event and would have no comment.

Brownfield was harassed at two events in Guarico and Sucre states recently, prompting an appeal to Venezuelan authorities for better security.

In an interview at the U.S. Embassy on Friday after the incident, Brownfield said the two governments "obviously have a problem."

"Today for the third time in three weeks while I was traveling in Venezuela I was attacked by a group of violent protesters who purported to be supporting this government," Brownfield said. "We have to work out ... how I can perform my diplomatic mission and how they can meet their obligations ... to permit my travel in the country and provide for my security."

This week, Venezuelan Foreign Ministry official Maria Pilar Hernandez met in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon. Both sides described that meeting, one of the few high-level diplomatic meetings in recent years, as cordial.

Times special correspondent Stephen Ixer contributed to this report.

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