U.S. expels Venezuelan diplomats in tit-for-tat move over unrest

CARACAS, (Reuters) – The United States yesterday ordered three Venezuelan diplomats to leave in reprisal for President Nicolas Maduro’s expulsion of three American embassy staff accused of fomenting unrest that has killed at least 13 people.

Students and others opposed to Maduro want him to quit over high rates of crime and inflation, lack of basic foodstuffs and what they call his heavy-handed suppression of their protests.

Disputes between the ideologically opposed governments in Washington and Caracas were common during the 1999-2013 rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and have continued under his successor Maduro.

When it comes to oil, though, pragmatism trumps politics and the United States remains the OPEC member’s main export market.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that two first secretaries and a second secretary at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington had been declared personae non gratae in response to Caracas’ Feb. 17 move against the three Americans.

“They have been allowed 48 hours to leave the United States,” it said.

Venezuela and the United States have been without ambassadors since 2008, and Maduro expelled the three U.S. diplomats last week on accusations of recruiting students to hold violent, rock-throwing protests against him.

Washington has rejected the claims as baseless.

Despite the latest dispute, Maduro’s government proposed Maximilien Sanchez, a former envoy to Brazil, as its new ambassador to Washington yesterday to try to kick-start talks and combat what it sees as propaganda.

“U.S. society needs to know the truth about Venezuela,” Maduro said in the latest of his daily speeches to the nation at a meeting with state governors late on Monday.

“They (Americans) think we’re killing each other. They think we can’t go out to the corner. They’re asking for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. What madness! Should that happen, you and I will be out with a gun defending our territory.”

The crisis, in which more than 500 people have been arrested and about 150 injured over two weeks, has brought remonstrations from the U.S. government and attracted wider attention.

 

The great majority of those detained in connection with the protests have been freed pending trial, but celebrities such as Madonna and Cher have condemned Maduro.

 

The 51-year-old former union activist, who narrowly won a presidential election in April to replace Chavez, says international media are in league with “imperialists” abroad to project an image of chaos and repression in Venezuela.

Argentine former soccer great Diego Maradona backed that stance while signing a deal to be a commentator for Caracas-based Telesur network at the upcoming World Cup in Brazil.

“We’re seeing all the lies that the imperialists are saying and inventing. I’m prepared to be a soldier for Venezuela in whatever is required,” said Maradona, a friend of both Chavez and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, before declaring:

 

“Long live Chavez, long live Maduro, long live Venezuela!”

 

Sporadic protests continued on Tuesday, with students mounting roadblocks in the more affluent eastern districts of the capital. In a sign of spreading violence, officials and residents in the provincial cities of San Cristobal, Maracaibo and Maracay all reported looting.

 

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