By Steve Holland
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - The Venezuelan government's suggestion that an American citizen it has detained is a spy is "ridiculous," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a television interview recorded on Saturday during a visit to Costa Rica.
Venezuela said late last month it had detained an American called Timothy Hallet Tracy, accusing him of financing opposition student demonstrations after April's disputed presidential election and saying he had clearly been trained as an intelligence agent.
Venezuela said Tracy, 35, from Michigan, had received money from a foreign non-profit organization and had redirected those funds toward student organizations, seeking to provoke "civil war".
Relatives and friends of Tracy have described him to U.S. media as a documentary maker who was in Venezuela to make a film about the presidential election.
"This U.S. citizen who apparently has been detained, we will handle (it) like ... every situation where we get a U.S. citizen who gets into some sort of legal tangle in a foreign country," Obama told Noticias Telemundo in an interview set to be aired on Sunday.
"The notion that this individual is some spy is ridiculous," Obama added as he wrapped up a three-day trip to Mexico and Costa Rica. "We've seen some of this rhetoric occasionally come out of Venezuela."
U.S. officials say the matter is being handled privately, rather than government-to-government, and they are unaware of details of the case. They are, however, seeking consular access to Tracy.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, elected in April by a narrow margin, has accused former U.S. officials of fomenting plans to assassinate him and also said Washington is supporting efforts to destabilize Venezuela.
FLOOD OF ACCUSATIONS
The U.S. government has denied that, and Venezuela's opposition has derided the torrent of accusations as a smokescreen to distract people from difficult domestic issues.
Obama said in a separate interview with Univision News, aired on Friday, that the United States was watching "crackdowns on the opposition" in Venezuela, when asked if he considered newly elected Maduro to be the country's legitimate president.
The United States angered Maduro when it last month held back recognition of his narrow victory over Capriles.
"What we want for Venezuela is ... Venezuelans ... able to choose their own leadership in fair and free elections a democratic process that is credible," Obama told Noticias Telemundo. "We have not tried to interfere in any way with what happens there."
"What we've said is, you know, let's make sure that the rules are being followed, that people are not being thrown into jail or intimidated, that the press is allowed to report fairly on what happens, that the ruling party doesn't resort to intimidation in terms of skewing results."
Maduro responded to Obama's criticism of Venezuela's democratic credentials with an angry denunciation of the U.S. leader's "insolence" on Saturday during a government "cadena" broadcast that all local television channels are obliged to show live.
"There's now no doubt that Obama himself, as the puppet of that imperial power, is behind the financing in dollars of this right wing that wants to mess with and destroy Venezuela's democracy," he said.
Maduro said he would not let up in his defense of Venezuela's sovereignty and constitution, and was prepared to talk with Washington despite its antagonism towards him.
"We can sit down even with the devils' major-general, Obama," he said in a speech to red-shirted workers who chanted "Obama, fascist" as he wound up.
A later statement by the Venezuelan government accused Obama of turning a blind eye to deaths that occurred in opposition-led protests the day after Maduro's election, and showing hypocrisy on human rights given his failure to close a prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
(With reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Eric Walsh)