U.S. says Venezuelans aided drug traffickers

The United States stopped trying to be polite Friday in an escalating diplomatic shoving match with the populist leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia.

Washington slapped new sanctions on three aides close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and called him weak and desperate. The Venezuelan ambassador got the boot for good measure, a move that was purely for show. Chavez had already brought his man home.

“Those who shout the loudest are not making the real news in the Americas,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said after Chavez used bathroom profanity to accuse the Americans of meddling in Latin America.

The rupture began Wednesday when Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador there, accusing him of inciting violent protests. Chavez followed suit Thursday, accusing the “U.S. empire” of helping plot a coup against him. He later gave the American ambassador 72 hours to quit the country.

McCormack read a defense to reporters Friday.

“The only meaningful conspiracy in the region is the common commitment of democratic countries to enhance opportunities for their citizens,” he said. “The only overthrow we seek is that of poverty.”

Separately, the United States accused three members of Chavez's inner circle of aiding Colombian rebels known as the FARC by supplying arms and helping drug traffickers.

Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a statement that the “designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents.”

Violent clashes over Bolivia's future have claimed eight lives. U.S. diplomats say Chavez and Morales are punching the United States to distract attention from mismanagement and unpopularity at home.

“This reflects the weakness and desperation of these leaders,” McCormack said.

Not long after McCormack spoke, Honduras announced that it will hold off on the accreditation of a new U.S. ambassador in solidarity with Venezuela and Bolivia. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya said the Central American nation is not breaking relations with the United States.

Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega, a close ally of Morales, has not announced whether he will take any action against the U.S. ambassador in Nicaragua.

The new sanctions target Hugo Carvajal Barrios and Henry Rangel Silva, both chiefs of Venezuelan intelligence agencies. A former government minister, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, was also named.

AP writers Foster Klug, Ian James and Frank Bajak contributed.