Mérida, 2nd October 2013 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Three Venezuelan diplomats were expelled from the United States a day after Venezuela declared Washington's highest-ranking representative in Caracas a persona non grata after she visited the offices of an organisation co-founded by a legislator who says she accidentally supported the 2002 coup.
Venezuelan Chargé d’Affaires Calixto Ortega, Second Secretary Monica Sanchez and Consul Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida were all given 48 hours to leave the US late on Tuesday. Ortega and Sanchez were working at the Washington embassy, while Gutierrez de Almeida had been stationed at Venezuela's consulate in Houston.
According to the US State Department, the decision was made in response to the recent expulsion of Washington's Chargé d’Affaires in Venezuela, Kelly Keiderling, and two other US officials.
"It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. [sic] diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action. It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries," the State Department said.
Today, Venezuela's foreign ministry stated it “repudiates” the US decision.
“This cannot be considered a reciprocal decision, observing the unequivocal conduct of our functionaries, who have not dared at any time to sustain meetings with groups who are against the Government of President Barack Obama or with persons interested in acting against the U.S. Government,” the ministry said.
The Sumate Connection
Since announcing the expulsion of the US diplomats on Monday, the Venezuelan government has publicly released material it says proves the three were involved in a destabilisation plot.
Venezuelan state television aired footage and photographs of the US officials visiting the offices of the opposition aligned Sumate organisation in Bolivar state.
Foreign minister Elias Jaua alleged that the officials met with Sumate on 27 September to discuss plans to not recognise the upcoming nationwide municipal elections on 8 December. According to state news agency AVN, the diplomats have also been accused of involvement in plans to sabotage the country's electricity sector.
Founded in 2002 by the opposition politician Maria Machado and engineer Alejandro Plaz, in 2004 Sumate campaigned for a recall referendum to revoke the presidency of the late Hugo Chavez. Machado, a fierce critic of the government, was a signatory of the Carmona Decree, which suspended the National Assembly and declared Pedro Carmona head of state during the short lived 2002 coup against Chavez.
Machado has said she signed the decree by accident when she visited the presidential palace in April 2002, believing it to be a sign-in sheet.
Sumate itself has reportedly received funding from the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and in 2005 a Caracas court ordered charges of treason and conspiracy against Sumate leaders including Machado and Plaz.
The case drew international controversy, and the trials were repeatedly postponed.
According to Maduro, the US diplomats accused of meeting with Sumate had been subject to an investigation by Venezuelan authorities since earlier this year.
The diplomats were “dedicated to meeting with the Venezuelan extreme right, to financing it and feeding its actions to sabotage the electrical system and the Venezuela economy,” Maduro said.
The State Department, however, denied allegations that the officials were involved in anything unusual during their visit to Bolivar.
“They were there conducting normal diplomatic engagement, as we've said in the past and should come as no surprise," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
“We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of U.S. [sic] government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize [sic] the Venezuelan government,” the US embassy said in a statement.
Sumate board member Dashiell Lopez told the media that nobody from his organisation met with the officials.
During a Caracas press conference, Keiderling said she had been meeting with “Venezuelans”, though she didn't confirm or deny meeting with Sumate.
“These meetings with civil society can be with Sumate, they can be with a group of women, with mothers who have lost children or with an environmental group that wants to lobby for cleaning a park,” she stated.
“If we aren't talking with these people, we aren't doing our jobs,” she said.
The foreign ministry described Keiderling's statement as “a confession of open interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela”.
Venezuela and the US haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010, meaning Keilderling was the highest-level US diplomatic official in Venezuela.
On Tuesday, Maduro stated that the Venezuelan government wasn't to blame for the limping relations between the two countries.
“Comandante Hugo Chavez always insisted we had to have respectful and communicative relations with the US, but they [the Venezuelan opposition] prevent it,” he said.
“Until the US government understands it has to respect Venezuela as a sovereign nation, quite simply there will be no cordial relations, nor cordial communications,” he said.
The US diplomats are expected to leave Venezuela today.