By Russ Dallen & Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS -- The chargé d'affaires at the United Status embassy in Caracas -- who, in the absence of the U.S. ambassador expelled in September is the highest ranking official -- found himself at the center of controversy on Wednesday after it was alleged that he was one of the American officials who supposedly met recently with Venezuelan opposition leaders and a private media executive in Puerto Rico.
The meeting is supposed to have been held to discuss tactics in the campaign against President Hugo Chávez' bid to reform the constitution by removing a ban on successive re-election. Chávez referred to the meeting during his seven-hours-long State of the Union speech to parliament on Tuesday.
Chávez has a habit of accusing the United States in general and the Bush Administration in particular of plotting against him, even to the point of assassinating him, invading Venezuela and taking over its oil riches. Washington used to routinely deny any such notion, but more recently has opted for bored silence.
The chargé d'affaires, John Patrick Caulfield, said he was stunned by the accusation and denied that he had met with opposition leaders or media executives in Puerto Rico. He confirmed that he had indeed recently gone there, but explained that his purpose was to attend a wedding of friends. "The government knows very well my purpose in Puerto Rico, and they know I wasn't at that meeting."
In accord with diplomatic rules, Caulfield had notified the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry of his trip.
Venezuelan officials "received me in the VIP lounge at the airport, they took me to the door of the plane. They told me 'have a good trip' ... I don't know where this news came from," he told reporters. "When relations are tense, there's a tendency to imagine the worst hypothesis for whatever event."
Thus, he expressed his confusion at the statement by Chavez last Saturday that he would expel an unnamed U.S. diplomat if it were proven that he participated in a "meeting" of Venezuelan opposition figures in Puerto Rico.
Caulfield expressed hope that things had calmed down. He said he'd been to the National Assembly to listen to Chávez' annual statement on Tuesday. "I was there seven hours and I wasn't named," he said.
However, Chávez speech did include a favorable reference to Pedro Carvajalino, a journalist who had an altercation with Alberto Federico Ravell, director of the private sector television station, Globovisión – which makes little or no effort to disguise its dislike for Chávez and all he stands for.
Carvajalino works for TV Avila, another television station – but in this case one which is just as unashamed in its pro-Chávez stance as Globovisión is hostile.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General's office announced late Wednesday that it has appointed Gabriela Soler to carry out an investigation into the alleged reunion held by opposition leaders in Puerto Rico. The prosecutor was appointed to establish whether anything criminal had taken place, the Attorney General said.
Likewise, the National Assembly will begin an investigation into the alleged meetings, said Cilia Flores, President of the Assembly, on Wednesday.
"We will also investigate where the resources went for that trip because the plane used is private. Also, we shall investigate who owns the plane and who paid for it," said Flores, who confirmed that they would also look for the source of the three million dollars that supposedly was to be used to carry out the "destabilizing campaign." Puerto Rico
According to Chavez, at the meeting held at a "Puerto Rican hotel" the opposition representatives received direction from U.S. officials in how to oppose his campaign for a constitutional amendment eliminating presidential term limits.
Should the amendment become a reality, Chavez, who first took office in 1999, could seek another six-year term in the 2012 election.
Caulfield said Wednesday that his trip to Puerto Rico "was not clandestine," and that he did not even say a hello to the group of opposition members who also traveled last week to the U.S. commonwealth in the Caribbean.
At the alleged meeting, in addition to Globovisión's Ravell, there was also supposed to be Omar Barbosa, Julio Borges (Primero Justicia), and Luis Ignacio Planas (COPEI).
Meanwhile, the Socialist Front of Puerto Rico jumped into the fray to condemn the utilization of Puerto Rican territory to plan an imperialist plot against the Venezuelan people.
“We categorically condemn that yankee imperialism uses the territory of our motherland to launch conspiracy plans to undermine the foundations of the Bolivarian revolutionary process, led by the President Hugo Chavez,” said the organization in a statement. "Once again, Washington's government uses Puerto Rican territory -- which they have kept under their abominable colonial control for 110 years --to attack the brother countries of Latin America and the Caribbean." Expelling Officials
Last September, Chavez expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy in "solidarity" with a similar decision made by Bolivian President Evo Morales.
The U.S. government, in turn, then expelled Venezuela's envoy to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez.
Chavez also expelled the Israeli Ambassador to Venezuela Shlomo Cohen earlier this month. Bolivia today also broke their relations with Israel.
Chavez, whose oil-rich nation is a key supplier of crude to the United States, accuses Washington of complicity with an abortive 2002 coup and views the millions of dollars Venezuelan opposition groups receive from U.S. public entities as interference.
By the same token, U.S. officials denounce Chavez as an autocrat who undermines "stability" in Latin America.
Prior to his assignment to Caracas, Caulfield was Consul General at the American Embassy in London. From 2002 to 2005 he was Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Lima, Peru.
He has held a series of positions dealing with Latin America in his 30 years with the US Department of State, including Consul at Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He has also directed the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs for the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs. Earlier in his career he held assignments in the Department of State as Country Officer for Argentina and later Brazil, and served overseas in Colombia, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Brazil.
Mr. Caulfield is originally from New Jersey and graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia with a degree in International Relations and Latin American StudiesVenezuela Totally Severs Ties With Israel Over Gaza
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Click here to visit the website of the Socialist Front of Puerto Rico.