With Accusations of Sabotage, Venezuela Expels 3 U.S. Embassy Officials

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- Stepping up hostilities with the United States, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela expelled the top American diplomat and two other embassy officials from the country on Monday, accusing them of supporting plots to sabotage the country's electrical grid and the economy.

"Get out of Venezuela! Yankee go home!" Mr. Maduro shouted as he announced the expulsions at a military event to commemorate the bicentennial of a battle in Venezuela's war of independence.

"We have detected a group of officials of the United States Embassy in Caracas, in Venezuela, and we have been tracking them for several months," Mr. Maduro said during a live television broadcast. "These officials spend their time meeting with the Venezuelan extreme right wing, financing them and encouraging them to take actions to sabotage the electrical system, to sabotage the Venezuelan economy."

The expulsions were the latest diplomatic swipe at Washington by Mr. Maduro since he took over for the country's longtime president, Hugo Chávez, who died in March. Late last year, as Mr. Chávez grew increasingly ill, the two nations held informal talks aimed at improving the long-strained relations between them, and there was some optimism on the American side that Mr. Maduro, a former foreign minister sometimes described as pragmatic, would be amenable to a thaw.

But it quickly became clear that Mr. Maduro intended to stick closely to Mr. Chávez's example, painting the United States as an imperialist aggressor out to undermine his government. Early on, he accused the Obama administration of plotting against him, and hours before he announced the death of Mr. Chávez on March 5, he kicked out two American military attachés, saying they had tried to recruit Venezuelan military personnel to conspire against the government.

The diplomats expelled on Monday included Kelly Keiderling, the chargé d'affaires, who runs the embassy in the absence of an ambassador here. The United States has not had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010, when Mr. Chávez refused to accept the new one proposed by Washington because of remarks that Mr. Chávez said were disrespectful.

Mr. Chávez had already expelled the American ambassador, Patrick Duddy, in 2008, saying that his government had discovered an American-supported plot by military officers to topple him. Mr. Duddy was later allowed to return to Caracas.

Another one of the diplomats expelled on Monday was Elizabeth Hoffman, an official in the embassy's political section, whom Mr. Maduro had publicly accused at least as early as April of meeting with opposition figures to plot sabotage of the electrical system. He said at the time that he had proof but took no action until Monday. The third official being expelled is David Moo, the vice consul.

Foreign Minister Elías Jaua later said on television that the evidence against the American diplomats included meetings held in recent weeks with democracy advocates, union members and elected officials belonging to the political opposition, whom he accused of planning to destabilize the country. 

Mr. Maduro said the officials had 48 hours to leave the country.

"We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of U.S. government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government," the American Embassy said in a statement. It called the meetings held by the officials "normal diplomatic engagements," adding, "We maintain regular contacts across the Venezuelan political spectrum."

Ever since he was elected by a narrow margin in April in a special election to replace Mr. Chávez, Mr. Maduro has struggled with intense economic woes and a deeply divided populace. He has often accused plotters and saboteurs of being responsible for a variety of the nation's ills, including electrical blackouts and the deadly explosion at the national oil company's enormous Amuay refinery.

"He needs diversions and distractions," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy group in Washington. "The situation is so dire in Venezuela that he needs to find a scapegoat, and it's convenient and politically so tempting to kick out U.S. diplomats."

But Mr. Shifter said that describing the United States as the source of the country's problems might not have the same effect it did for Mr. Chávez, who was beloved by many of his supporters. Mr. Maduro does not inspire nearly the same devotion, and the country's economic woes are getting worse, with inflation over 45 percent a year and shortages of many basic foods and goods, including toilet paper.

"I doubt that it has the resonance it used to have," Mr. Shifter said of the diplomatic expulsions.

María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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