A country's consuls are usually low-key diplomats who handle issues like visa applications. But under President Hugo Chávez, two Venezuelan consuls in the United States have been anything but low-profile.
One drew the FBI's attention for his close links to Puerto Rican pro-independence militants. Another sparked concerns over his ties to a website that has published several anti-semitic rants.
Chávez has long been an exuberant salesman for ``21st Century Socialism,'' regularly bashing the U.S. ``empire'' and its ``lackeys,'' like Colombia next door and Israel farther afield. And his government has spent tens of millions of dollars selling that vision abroad.
But his foreign envoys sometimes seem to forget their diplomatic manners. Or worse.
Costa Rica last month publicly upbraided Venezuelan Ambassador Nelson Pineda for organizing a seminar in the Central American country dedicated to ``debating'' the controversial agreement that allows U.S. troops to use Colombian military bases.
``We made him aware of our discomfort and we asked him to fully respect . . . that there be no meddling in the internal affairs of Costa Rica,'' Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno told a news conference.
Far more troublesome was the case of Vinicio Romero, Venezuela's consul in Puerto Rico from October 2000 until March of 2006. A staunch Chávez supporter, he also was a biographer of the president's hero, Simon Bolivar, who led Venezuela's war of independence from Spain.
FBI agents in Puerto Rico began investigating Romero in 2004 or 2005 amid confidential reports he was meeting with pro-independence radicals, according to a Bush administration official briefed on the case. He asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Puerto Rican Senator Roberto Arango told El Nuevo Herald that he was ``told unofficially'' the FBI inquiry ``is continuing'' and involves allegations that the consulate is using diplomatic pouches to deliver Chávez government money for pro-independence radicals.
Independentistas are a tiny minority on the island, but radicals have resorted to terror attacks in the past, including bombings of civilian targets and a 1954 attack on the U.S. Congress that wounded five lawmakers.
The FBI office in San Juan said it had no comment. The Venezuelan embassy in Washington, which supervises the eight consulates in U.S. cities, ranging from San Francisco to Boston, did not reply to an El Nuevo Herald e-mail seeking its comment for this story.
Ironically, Romero's activities started to become public after he died from natural causes Nov. 20, 2006, while serving as ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. A month later, the pro-independence weekly Claridad praised ``his solidarity with Puerto Rican independence'' and quoted his wife as saying that he ``lamented not having seen the independence of Puerto Rico, which he supported so much.''
Arango, a member of the U.S. territory's pro-statehood New Progressive Party, said the story prompted him to look into Romero's activities. And one year later he sent -- and made public -- a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging her ``to determine if the [Venezuelan]) consulate . . . is currently being used to finance the activities of political organizations in Puerto Rico.''
About 14 months after Arango wrote to Rice, Jewish-American groups began complaining that the Venezuelan consul in San Francisco, Martín Sánchez, was a co-founder and registered owner of Aporrea.org, a pro-Chávez website that has published several posts with titles like ``Jews, conspirators and assassins'' and ``Attack the synagogue!''
Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, said the ADL complained to the State Department and received a written reply in April from Deputy Assistant Secretary Thomas Shannon, in charge of Western hemispheric affairs.
``Shannon wrote that the linkage was troubling and of deep concern, and that they would be working within the State Department and elsewhere to examine the facts and what options might be available,'' Salberg said.
CRITICAL OF ISRAEL
While Chávez has been harshly critical of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, his foreign ministry has insisted that it makes a clear distinction between anti-Israeli comments and anti-semitism.
Sánchez told El Nuevo Herald that he left Aporrea -- Spanish for pummeling -- when he joined the Venezuelan diplomatic corps in 2005 but that he remained the site's registered owner until early this year because he forgot to change it.
And he noted that on Feb. 6, 2009, he posted an article on Aporrea saying that while he was ``no longer active'' in the site's management he felt compelled to reply to a harshly anti-semitic tract that the site had published on Jan. 22.
He wrote that a shorthanded Aporrea staff erred in publishing the tract, by Venezuelan university professor Emilio Silva, and noted it was quickly withdrawn because it contained materials ``unjustly discriminatory against a religious group.''
To publicly challenge Jews on the streets, as the Silva tract demanded, amounted to ``fascist measures,'' Sánchez wrote. And to call the Holocaust a myth was a ``condemnable barbarity.''
``The fact that there's a motion picture industry that exploits those events with commercial and political goals does not change Hitler's actions,'' Sánchez added.
Sánchez then repeated the Silva tract at the end of his article, ``so that the users of this [website] can have a full version of it.''