Venezuela, Mexico call their ambassadors back

Venezuela and Mexico called their ambassadors home in a spat between presidents Hugo Chavez and Vicente Fox that has brought sharp, personal accusations and has ballooned into one of the most pronounced diplomatic disputes of Chavez's presidency. Verbal barbs have sailed between Chavez and Fox in recent days, and Mexico demanded Venezuela apologize Monday for Chavez's latest remark warning Fox: "Don't mess with me, sir."

Venezuela promptly ordered its ambassador home Monday to protest what Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez called an unjustified ultimatum by Mexico.

"The whole world knows that this didn't begin on the Venezuelan side," Venezuelan Ambassador Vladimir Villegas said at Mexico City's airport, where Mexican television reported he boarded a plane and left late Monday.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said Mexico's ambassador, Enrique Loaeza y Tovar, would return home from Caracas first thing Tuesday.

The diplomatic clash highlighted a deep rift over relations with the United States and a U.S. proposal for a hemisphere-wide free trade zone. It also brought out long-standing differences between Fox, a conservative who tends to side with Washington, and Chavez, a fiery socialist and critic of U.S. President George W. Bush.

"Fox and Chavez are both serving important domestic political purposes for each other," said professor Harley Shaiken, who heads the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

"For Chavez, Fox is a surrogate of the United States in Latin America," Shaiken said. "For Fox, coming on against Chavez is low-cost, since he's in his last year (in office), weakened at home... Standing firm on anything offers him possible gains."

Tensions spilled over after the Summit of the Americas earlier this month in Argentina, where Fox defended the U.S. plan for a Free Trade Area of the Americas and Chavez proclaimed the idea dead. The dispute, Shaiken said, has "probably pushed farther and quicker than either side had initially intended" and may not go much further. Chavez, who took office in 1999, has had his share of diplomatic clashes.

Tensions arose with Chile in 2003 after Chavez suggested landlocked Bolivia should have access to the Pacific Ocean, something it lost in a war with Chile in the 1800s. A dispute with Colombia arose in January over the capture of a Colombian rebel in Caracas, which Chavez said violated Venezuelan sovereignty.

In both cases, tensions quickly dissipated as leaders opted for diplomacy. But the row between Chavez and Fox shows no signs of going away.

Last week, Chavez accused Fox of being a "puppy" of U.S. interests. On Sunday, he used his weekly TV and radio show to warn Fox: "Don't mess with me, sir, because you'll get stung."

Fox retorted in an interview with CNN en Espanol: "We can't allow people to offend our country."

Fox's spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, said the withdrawal of ambassadors didn't mean cutting off ties completely because business and cultural relations will remain.

Rodriguez agreed "there is not a break" in relations, saying another diplomat would head the Venezuelan embassy while the ambassador is away.

"This situation is entirely the responsibility of President Fox," Rodriguez said. Chavez has accused Fox of being disrespectful to him and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who hosted the recent summit.

Mexico had said Chavez's latest remark "strikes at the dignity of the Mexican people and government."

Aguilar also criticized Chavez for replaying videos of internal summit debates during his weekend program, calling it "an illegal act," reports the AP. I.L.

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