US expels Venezuelan diplomat as Ahmadinejad makes Latin America tour

Venezuela's consul general to Miami was expelled today amid accusations that she assisted with a cyberattack – coordinated by Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela – against the US. 

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (l.) and Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez hold hands after the Iranian leader's arrival to Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday. Venezuela is the first leg of a four-nation tour that will also take Ahmadinejad to Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador.
Javier Caceres/AP
In this photo taken in November 2011, Livia Acosta Noguera, the Venezuelan Consul General to Miami, looks on during an event in Miami. President Obama's administration expelled Acosta after allegations surfaced that she discussed possible cyberattacks on US soil while she was stationed at her country's embassy in Mexico, the US State department said Sunday.

The Obama administration asked a Venezuelan diplomat based in Miami to leave the United States by Jan. 10, potentially straining US-Venezuelan relations further as Iran and Venezuela grow closer. 

The expulsion corresponds with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Venezuela yesterday, the first stop on his four-country Latin America tour. Some fear Iran is using the region as a staging ground to attack US interests, an issue that’s especially salient given recent Western anxiety about Iran’s nuclear goals.

In December, a Univision documentary called “The Iranian Threat”  linked Livia Acosta Noguera, the Venezuelan Consul General to Miami since March 2011, to a potential cyberattack coordinated by Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela against the US. 

There is no indication that American officials have been able to verify Univision's allegations, reports The New York Times. Some analysts say the expulsion had less to do with the merits of the accusation than a desire by the Obama Administration to defuse Republican pressure over Iran during an election year.

“This [expulsion] has to be viewed in the wider context,” says Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue. “The tensions are escalating with Iran and the US, so Venezuela becomes a greater concern.... [And] the Obama Administration doesn’t want to be vulnerable as soft on Iran and Latin America.”

Last month four US representatives wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drawing attention to the documentary's accusations.

“According to the documentary, when she served as the vice secretary at the Venezuelan embassy in Mexico in 2008, she interacted with members from the Iranian and Cuban embassies and students posing as extremists from the Universidad Autónoma of Mexico to coordinate a cyber attack against the U.S. government and critical infrastructure systems at the White House, FBI and CIA,” reads the letter, which was posted on Florida Rep. David Rivera’s (R) website and signed by New Jersey Rep. Albio Sires (D) and Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R). 

Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, called for hearings on the alleged plot.

The Venezuelan government dismissed the Univision report as false and uncorroborated. “They are using a lie as an excuse to attack us,” President Hugo Chavez said in December, calling on allies to be on guard. 

Lessons learned from George W. Bush’s first term in office show a confrontational approach to Chavez is not effective, says Mr. Shifter, because criticism "gave Chavez greater ammunition for his own political agenda.”  

“Any kind of real confrontational posture towards Venezuela will only help Chavez, as it has in the past,” Shifter says. But Obama, he adds, is under pressure from Congress and the Republican presidential candidates to take action on the perceived strengthening ties between Iran and some Latin American countries. Mr. Ahmadinejad plans to attend President Daniel Ortega's inauguration in Nicaragua tomorrow, another event that prompted outcry from some US politicians.

Chavez, who is also running for reelection this year, frequently paints the United States as an imperialist adversary set out to destroy his socialist government.

“He sees himself as a victim of the [US] empire,” says Shifter.  “The US doesn’t want to feed him any new material.”

The request for Ms. Noguera to leave the US within 72 hours could serve as fodder for Chavez’s verbal attacks on US policy, and a reciprocal expulsion of diplomatic staff on behalf of Venezuela can’t be ruled out, Shifter says.

Neither the US nor Venezuela have hosted each other’s ambassadors since 2008, when Mr. Chavez charged American Ambassador Patrick D. Duddy with backing a plot to overthrow him in a military coup. The US removed its ambassador in response, heightening tension between the two nations.

Venezuela has had a strong geopolitical alliance with Iran since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.  “Both countries want to curtail US power,” says Mr. Shifter, “and they both get benefits out of provoking the United States.”

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