CARACAS: The United States Tuesday 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.
Disputes between the ideologically opposed governments 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 persona non grata in response to Caracas’ Feb. 17 move against the three Americans.
“They have been allowed 48 hours to leave the United States,” the statement said.
Venezuela and the United States have been without ambassadors since 2008, and Maduro expelled the three last week on accusations of recruiting students to protest against him.
Washington has rejected the claims as baseless.
Despite the latest bilateral spat, however, Maduro planned to nominate a new ambassador to Washington Tuesday to try to kick-start relations and combat what he sees as propaganda against him.
“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 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.
Celebrities such as Madonna and Cher have condemned Maduro.
The 51-year-old former union activist, who narrowly won a presidential election to replace Chavez last year, says international media are in league with “imperialists” abroad to project an image of chaos and repression in Venezuela.
Argentine former football 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 Tuesday, with students mounting roadblocks in the more affluent eastern districts of the capital Caracas. In a worrying sign of spreading violence, officials and residents in the provincial cities of San Cristobal, Maracaibo and Maracay all reported looting.
Demonstrations began at the start of the month but mushroomed across Venezuela after the first deaths on Feb. 12.
The students are demanding that Maduro resign over Venezuela’s high rates of crime and inflation and shortages of staples such as milk, flour and sugar.
They also accuse him of brutal repression of protests.
“I’m not going until he goes,” said student Pablo Jimenez, 24, pointing to a photo of Maduro with a big red cross painted over it as he tried to start a fire on a road in the wealthy Sebucan district of Caracas soon after dawn.
Moderate opposition figures have been calling for peaceful protests only, and are questioning the tactics of setting up barricades and burning trash in largely middle-class neighborhoods that are already mainly pro-opposition.
As on most days, both sides organized rallies in the capital and elsewhere. In Caracas, the opposition planned to march to the Cuban Embassy to protest alleged interference in Venezuelan affairs by the island’s communist government.
Many Caracas residents stayed home, schools were largely closed and some businesses also stayed shut.
Residents of Caracas’ poorer west side have staged only a few minor demonstrations, though government critics there have joined in traditional protests of banging pots and pans at their windows during Maduro’s hourslong television broadcasts.
The demonstrations are the biggest challenge to Maduro’s 10-month-old government, though there is no sign they could topple him or affect oil shipments.