Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez named as Defence minister General Henry Rangel Silva, who the United States has described as a “drug kingpin” linked to cocaine smuggling from neighbouring Colombia.
The announcement was done a few hours before the arrival on an official visit, which includes several other countries of the region, of Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, which the US has also criticized.
The populist Chávez, who calls the United States a decadent empire bent on exploiting developing countries, has repeatedly denied US accusations that his government has turned a blind eye to drug trafficking.
This good soldier, this humble soldier ... this fighter for the people, today I publicly designate him as the new Defence minister of the Boliviarian Republic, Chávez said during a televised religious ceremony.
The Venezuelan leader is expected to reshuffle his cabinet in the coming days to pave the way for several of his current ministers to run in regional elections later this year.
In 2008, the US Treasury Department accused Rangel and another high-ranking officer of materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of Colombia's FARC rebels. Both men deny any wrongdoing.
Venezuela, which shares in the tropical jungle a long, largely unpoliced border with Colombia, has become a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine on its way to consumer nations.
Chávez ended cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005 amid accusations that its agents were spying and violating Venezuelan sovereignty.
He says his government has invested millions of dollars on fighting drugs and points to extradition of accused druglords to Colombia and an increase in drug-related arrests as evidence of the country's anti-narcotics efforts.
Diplomatic ties between Venezuela and Washington have been tense for years even though Caracas still provides close to 10% of US crude and fuel imports.
Washington in September accused four close Chávez allies of helping to provide arms to the guerrilla group FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a charge Venezuela dismissed as ”abusive”.
General Henry Rangel Silva, “a great soldier and a fighter for the people”