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Cross-posted at DailyKos.

(Damn, where is it? Did I drop it under the desk in the Oval?)

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice kicks off a tour of Latin America — “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to raise concerns about Venezuela in a four-country tour through the region this week. Political analysts say she will have a hard time finding support.” — and as the U.S. weighs its “toughening stance” on Venezuela, comes this intriguing news:

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS – Filed 12:10 a.m. ET (NYT)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The United States’ top diplomat in Venezuela on Monday denied claims by President Hugo Chavez that a woman linked to the U.S. military had been arrested while photographing a military installation.

”I am absolutely sure that there was no detention of any U.S. official or soldier here in Venezuela during recent months,” said U.S. Ambassador William Brownsfield. … More below:

More from the AP/NYTimes story:

Chavez — in a speech Sunday during which he also confirmed that Venezuela was canceling a 35-year-old military exchange program with the United States — also said that several other Americans were also caught taking pictures of an oil refinery. He did not say whether the woman had been released or provide other details about the incident.

Chavez suggested the two separate incidents could be a sign that President Bush’s administration might be planning an invasion to take control of Venezuela’s immense oil reserves, a charge he has leveled before and which the Washington has denied.

Brownsfield said the U.S. Embassy in Caracas had not been notified about any such arrest. But he confirmed that in February a woman enlisted in the U.S. military lost a purse in the city of Maracay, home to Venezuela’s main air force base and numerous military installations.

The purse belonging to the woman contained her military ID card, passport and a disposable camera, said an American embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The woman was dressed in civilian clothes and had been in the city to visit a military museum and was never detained, the official said.
The reports were the latest in an ongoing salvo of accusations and recriminations between Caracas and Washington …

The self-proclaimed revolutionary has accused the Bush administration of supporting efforts to oust him and of otherwise trying to undermine his government.

U.S. officials have criticized his close friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and have cautioned that Chavez, a leftist former paratrooper, is a destabilizing force in the region.

In his speech Sunday, Chavez complained that Venezuelan-based U.S. officers participating in the military exchange program were spreading a negative image of his government to Venezuelan students.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli described the decision to end the program as ”unfortunate.”

I thought you’d get a kick out of these images:

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These images sure make her trip look like a school field trip!

From the story in today’s NYT:

U.S. Considers Toughening Stance Toward Venezuela


As President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela veers toward greater confrontation with Washington, the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach, including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government, American officials say.

The Bush administration has already begun to urge Venezuela’s neighbors to distance themselves from Mr. Chávez and to raise concerns about press freedoms, judicial independence and the Venezuelan government’s affinity for leftist groups abroad, including Colombian guerrillas.

But it has found no allies so far in its attempts to isolate the Venezuelan leader, and it has grown more and more frustrated by Mr. Chávez’s strident anti-American outbursts and policies that seem intended to fly in the face of Washington. On Sunday, Mr. Chávez ended a 35-year military cooperation agreement and ordered out four American military instructors he accused of fomenting unrest.

The accusation, which American officials denied, was the latest blow to relations that had been bitter since the United States tacitly supported a coup that briefly ousted Mr. Chávez in April 2002. Since then his strength has grown. He won a recall election last August, and record high oil prices have left his government flush with money as it provides 15 percent of American oil imports.

American officials, who had chosen to ignore Mr. Chávez through much of last year, now recognize the need for a longer-term strategy to deal with a leader who is poised to win a second six-year term in elections next year.

A multiagency task force in Washington has been working on shaping a new approach, one that high-ranking American policy makers say would most likely veer toward a harder line. United States support for groups that Chávez supporters say oppose the government has been a source of tension in the past. Under the plans being considered, American officials said, that support may increase. …

How Venezuela is insulated from Washington:

“What’s happening here is they realize this thing is deteriorating rapidly and it’s going to require some more attention,” said a high-ranking Republican aide on Capitol Hill who works on Latin America policy. “The current look-the-other-way policy is not working.”

The United States, he said, is particularly concerned because Venezuela is one of four top providers of foreign oil to the United States. “You can’t write him off,” the aide said of Mr. Chávez. “He’s sitting on an energy source that’s critical to us.”

A main problem for the United States is that Washington has little, if any, influence over Caracas. The high price of oil has left Venezuela with no need for the loans or other aid that the United States could use as leverage.

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