US Ambassador to Venezuela fails to establish dialogue with Chavez's government

After three rocky years as Washington's top envoy to Venezuela, Ambassador William Brownfield ended his term saying he regrets he was unable to establish a productive dialogue with President Hugo Chavez's government.

Brownfield, who is taking over as ambassador to Colombia, said in a televised interview Wednesday night that the lack of cooperation was a key reason U.S. authorities decided they were running out of time to arrest suspects last month accused of plotting to bomb New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. One of the four was taken off a plane in Trinidad and arrested just as he prepared to fly to Iran through Venezuela.

"The question we asked ourselves at that moment was if we had the cooperation, the level of cooperation necessary with the Venezuelan authorities to permit the monitoring of that man while he passed through Venezuela," Brownfield told the channel Globovision. "That's a concrete example of the apprehension."

Brownfield took over as ambassador to Caracas in August 2004, and his tenure was marked by growing hostility between the two governments. On at least two occasions, Chavez threatened to expel Brownfield, accusing him of meddling in Venezuela's affairs.

"I regret that I haven't managed to establish a direct, serious, pragmatic dialogue between the two governments, a dialogue to resolve problems that involve both countries, like drugs, terrorism, international crime," Brownfield told reporters Tuesday.

A career diplomat from Texas with a penchant for wry humor, Brownfield has drawn Chavez's ire by voicing Washington's concerns and handing out donations to youth baseball leagues and charities in pro-Chavez slums.

Tensions have grown as the U.S. has called Chavez a negative influence on Latin America and as he has built close ties with countries like Iran and Syria.

For his part, Chavez accuses Washington of protecting a terrorist by failing to turn over Cuban militant Luis Posada Carriles, who is wanted here on charges of plotting the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner.

Asked about Chavez's recent spate of arms purchases, Brownfield said it's important for Venezuela to be open about those deals to avoid "the domino effect producing a weapons race" in the region.

Venezuela has already bought Russian warplanes, helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. Chavez says he is also considering buying submarines.

"If the only reason to buy submarines is to protect against an attack by the United States, the purchase isn't necessary because the United States ... will never attack Venezuela," Brownfield told reporters Tuesday as he hosted an Independence Day celebration.

In an interview with El Universal published Sunday, Brownfield noted that even during the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union maintained communication "to resolve concrete issues."

"And that should be possible here, too. I hope my successor has more success," he said.

Brownfield is being replaced by Patrick Duddy, a senior official in the State Department's Latin America bureau.

The outgoing ambassador cracked jokes during his televised appearance Wednesday night. Pulling out a red T-shirt, he grinned and said it came in the mail from some "anonymous person" - perhaps even a going-away gift from the presidential palace.

It bore a spoof slogan modeled after a popular pro-Chavez rally chant: "Uh! Ah! Brownfield IS going away!"