CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – A call for the U.S. to assassinate Hugo Chavez is playing into the Venezuelan leader’s political hands, bolstering his claim that Washington wants to kill him, putting him in the international limelight and probably boosting his popularity at home.

Chavez supporters said Wednesday the suggestion by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson that the United States should “take him out” gave credence to Chavez’s warnings that the U.S. government is searching for ways to overthrow his leftist regime.

“If anyone had a doubt, now they no longer do,” said Maritza Uzcategui, a 50-year-old nurse and Chavez supporter. “He’s been saying they want to kill him.”

U.S. officials called Robertson’s on-air remarks inappropriate and repeated assurances that the United States is not considering killing Chavez despite its questions about his commitment to democracy and accusations he is spreading instability in Latin America.

Robertson apologized Wednesday, saying it was wrong to call for someone’s assassination. “I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him,” he said in a statement.

For months, Chavez has peppered his speeches with mentions of assassination plots and purported U.S. efforts to oust him. He warns that Venezuela, the world’s fifth-largest petroleum exporter, will cut off oil shipments to the U.S. if it backs any sort of conspiracy against him.

At the same time, Chavez has been seeking to raise Venezuela’s profile internationally, extending preferential oil deals to countries from China to Argentina in an effort to strengthen alliances and line up alternative trade partners from the U.S., which is the No. 1 buyer of Venezuelan oil.

By legitimizing Chavez’s warnings about plots, Robertson’s words will raise the president’s profile and bolster his already high domestic support, which is drawn primarily from the country’s poor majority, said Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis.

“What is certain is that the statement strengthens Chavez domestically and internationally,” said Leon, whose polling firm said last month that Chavez has a 70 percent approval rating. “It amplifies the connection that Chavez has with the population who follows him.”

Venezuela’s government responded swiftly to Robertson’s remarks Monday, calling them “terrorist statements.”

Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and supporter of President Bush’s re-election bid, said on his TV show “The 700 Club” that the United States should stop Chavez from making Venezuela a “launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism.”

“If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it,” Robertson said.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s state-run television began broadcasting a brief segment blending images of Robertson and Bush while displaying the message “Who Gives Orders to Whom?”

The controversy arose while Chavez was on one of his frequent foreign trips, making stops in Cuba, Jamaica and Martinique.

He signed a deal with Jamaica on Tuesday night that is to be one of many across the Caribbean, pledging Venezuelan oil at special rates and allowing the island to pay through goods and services as well as low-interest loans.

“Don’t thank us. It is the call of conscience,” Chavez said.

Venezuela already ships about 90,000 barrels of oil a day to Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba on preferential terms, and it has started a plan called Petrocaribe to supply oil to Caribbean countries on favorable terms.

While in Cuba on Tuesday, Chavez also offered for the first time to help poor U.S. communities by selling them gasoline directly to eliminate middle men.

Chavez, a former army officer elected in 1998, often blames U.S. “imperialism” for the world’s poverty and says he is leading his country toward socialism – a term that in Venezuela has yet to be clearly defined.

When asked by reporters in Jamaica about Robertson’s remarks, Chavez showed little concern, comparing Robertson and other critics to the “mad dogs with rabies” that chased after the characters in “Don Quixote,” the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

“When the dogs bark it is because we are working all the time,” Chavez said. “The dogs bark … because we are advancing.”

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., criticized the U.S. stance toward Venezuela’s government as well as Robertson’s comments.

Serrano said Chavez “has been repeatedly targeted by this administration and its proxies with the worst kind of character assassination, solely because they disagree with his social and economic policies.”

Top U.S. officials say they are concerned about democracy under Chavez and have accused his government of financing “antidemocratic groups” in Bolivia, Ecuador and other Latin American countries.

Chavez has firmly denied it. And for every U.S. accusation, he has a counteraccusation.

Many observers, both among Chavez’s supporters and critics, say he appears to be capitalizing on his conflict with Washington by stirring feelings of nationalism among Venezuelans and casting the United States as the country’s most dangerous enemy.

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