CARACAS -- President Hugo Chavez has long accused the United States of conspiring to topple his government and possibly backing plots to assassinate him -- an allegation Washington has vehemently denied. But a call by Pat Robertson for American agents to ''take out" Chavez reignited the issue yesterday.
The religious broadcaster said Monday that killing the Venezuelan president would stop the South American country from becoming a ''launching pad for communist influence and Muslim extremism."
Although US officials quickly condemned Robertson's remarks, the fallout appeared likely to aggravate tensions between Washington and the world's fifth-largest oil exporting country.
Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said that the US response to Robertson would be a test of its antiterrorist policy and that Venezuela was studying its legal options.
''The ball is in the US court, after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country," Rangel said. ''It's a huge hypocrisy to maintain this discourse against terrorism and at the same time, in the heart of that country, there are entirely terrorist statements like those."
Rangel called Robertson ''a man who seems to have quite a bit of influence in that country," adding sarcastically that his words were ''very Christian." He said the comments ''reveal that religious fundamentalism is one of the great problems facing humanity in these times."
Winding up a visit to Cuba, Chavez said in response to questions about Roberston's remarks that such comments did not matter to him and that he would prefer to ''talk about life."
''I don't even know who that person is," said Chavez, standing next to Cuban leader Fidel Castro at Havana's airport.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said when asked about Robertson's comments: ''Our department doesn't do that kind of thing. It's against the law. He's a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Robertson's remarks ''inappropriate."
''This is not the policy of the United States government. We do not share his views," McCormack said.
The United States was believed to have been involved in the 1963 assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam and attempts to assassinate Castro. Political assassination was put off-limits by President Ford in the mid-1970s.
Robertson is a founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a supporter of President Bush.
The 75-year-old religious broadcaster has made controversial statements in the past. In October 2003, he suggested that the State Department be blown up with a nuclear device. He has also said that feminism encourages women to ''kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians."
On Monday, Robertson said on the Christian Broadcast Network's ''The 700 Club": ''We have the ability to take [Chavez] out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability.
''We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator," he continued. ''It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with."
''You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it," Robertson said. ''It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war . . . and I don't think any oil shipments will stop."
Chavez, who was democratically elected, has emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of President Bush. The United States is the top buyer of Venezuelan oil, but Chavez has made it clear he wants to decrease the country's dependence on the US market.