For anyone who worried that the death of Hugo Chávez last year might mean less colorful fireworks between Venezuela and the United States, never fear: Nicolás Maduro has taken charge of the anti-American mantle with gusto.
In an act that would have no doubt earned a tip of the fiery Mr. Chávez’s red beret, President Maduro on Monday ordered the expulsion of three US diplomats, charging them with an “imperialist” plot against Venezuela.
And not just any plot. According to Maduro, the chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Caracas and two other diplomats had been caught conspiring to sabotage the electrical grid and to “shut down all of Venezuela.” He accused the US diplomats of discussing their plot in meetings with Venezuela’s right-wing political opposition.
Appearing on national TV, Maduro shouted in English, “Yankees, go home!”
Maduro’s order – and especially going on national TV to announce it – was reminiscent of Chávez, who ruled for 14 years until last March by periodically spicing up his populist-leftist platform with anti-American rhetoric and actions.
Like Maduro’s accusation of electrical sabotage, Chávez’s rants against a meddling America could seem outlandish – but carried a suspicion of credibility, especially domestically and after the George W. Bush administration appeared to act in support of an unsuccessful coup attempt against Chávez in 2002.
Maduro’s charges of an American diplomatic plot hit as the US continues to face blowback from revelations this summer of extensive National Security Agency (NSA) e-mail spying and Internet monitoring operations across Latin America. Last week Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff blasted the US over its international spying operations against Brazilian officials, businesses, and citizens in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, and this week a group of Mercosur countries met in Caracas to come up with information security measures.
The US has not had an ambassador in Caracas since 2010, and Monday’s diplomatic dust-up seems likely to sink relations even further. Some members of Congress were quick to call for reciprocal steps against Venezuela.
“President Maduro’s expulsion of our embassy personnel continues a well worn pattern of measures designed to shore up his weak political hand and distract Venezuelans from the serious problems they face at home,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement Tuesday. “His use of diplomatic personnel to score political points is unacceptable and should not go unanswered.”
The US Embassy in Caracas rejected Maduro’s accusations and insisted that any meetings its personnel have had were “normal diplomatic engagements” as part of “regular contacts across the Venezuelan political spectrum.”
“We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s allegations of US government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government,” the Embassy said in a statement.
The diplomats ordered out of the country were Kelly Keiderling, the chargé d’affaires, Vice-Consul David Moo, and Elizabeth Hoffman of the Embassy’s political section. Maduro had already made a public case against Ms. Hoffman as far back as April, speaking then of her meetings with the opposition and alluding to a plot against Venezuela’s electrical power distribution system.
With his high-profile expulsion of US diplomats, Maduro is acting on a lesson learned from his political mentor, Chávez, Latin America analysts say: Distract the masses from the bad and deteriorating economic conditions around them with a good Yankee imperialist plot.
The problem for the US, some analysts add, is that the US has done its share to make the plots believable – with actions, for example, like the NSA spying operations.