WASHINGTON―The United States ordered two top Venezuelan diplomats to leave within 48 hours in a tit-for-tat response to Caracas’ expulsion order against the top two US diplomats there.
“This action is to reciprocate the Maduro regime’s decision to declare the Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Caracas persona non grata,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Wednesday.
The Charge d’Affaires of the Venezuelan embassy and the Deputy Consul General of the Venezuelan consulate in Houston had likewise been declared persona non grata and were directed to leave within two days, she said.
Venezuela’s move to expel US diplomats earlier this week followed a US tightening of sanctions over President Nicolas Maduro’s controversial re-election as president over the weekend.
The Venezuelan president declared US charge d’affaires Todd Robinson and deputy head of mission Brian Naranjo “persona non grata.”
Caracas has claimed it was the victim of a “political and financial lynching”―accusations Nauert branded “unjustified.”
“Our Embassy officers have carried out their official duties responsibly and consistent with diplomatic practice,” Nauert said.
“We reject any suggestion to the contrary.”
Maduro announced the expulsions after being officially proclaimed the winner of Sunday’s election in the South American nation mired in an acute economic crisis and facing growing international isolation.
The vote was boycotted by the main opposition parties and widely condemned by the international community, including the United States, which denounced it as a “sham.”
On Monday, President Donald Trump tightened the sanctions against Caracas, making it harder for the Maduro regime to sell off state assets.
“I repudiate all the sanctions that are sought against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, because they harm it, they generate suffering for the people of Venezuela,” Maduro said in response the next day.
Maduro promised to present evidence that both diplomats were engaged in a political, military and economic “conspiracy.”
Robinson, the charge d’affaires, denied the allegations.
Washington and Caracas have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, and relations between the two countries have been tense since the late leftist President Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor, assumed power in 1999.
The deeply unpopular Maduro was declared the winner of Sunday’s election with 68 percent of the vote, but with a record abstention rate.
Days before the elections, 11 soldiers were arrested for planning destabilizing actions against Maduro, and they were ordered to prison on Tuesday, the Foro Penal advocacy group said.
Venezuelans are reeling under a deepening crisis, with hyperinflation projected by the IMF to reach 13,800 percent this year and dire shortages of food and medicine.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country to escape the growing deprivation.
Washington has previously slapped sanctions on Maduro and his senior aides, and banned US entities from buying any more debt from Caracas or state oil company PDVSA.
The European Union said it was also weighing new sanctions after the election was marred by “irregularities” and failed to meet international standards.
Caracas is facing increasing international isolation, with the United States, the European Union and the 14 countries of the Lima Group―which includes Argentina, Brazil and Canada―refusing to recognize the election result.