Venezuela kicks out three American diplomats after US sides with protest leader

Maduro accuses US embassy officers of 'plotting' with left-wing students, and slams US backing of protest leader Leopoldo Lopez

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 12:57pm

President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday ordered the expulsion of three US embassy officials after Washington came to the defence of an opposition hardliner accused by Venezuela’s leader of being responsible for bloodshed during anti-government protests.

Maduro did not identify the consular officials but said intelligence collected over the past two months pointed to attempts by them to infiltrate Venezuelan universities, a hotbed of recent unrest, under the cover of doing visa outreach. He did not provide additional details.

“Go and do your [coup] plotting in Washington!” the president roared in a televised address, charging that the US diplomats had met with students involved in anti-government protests.

These are unacceptable, insolent demands. I don’t take orders from anyone in the world
Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela president

Triggering the expulsion was the Obama administration’s siding with opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is being hunted by authorities as Maduro accuses him of leading a “fascist” plot to oust the socialist government.

Maduro said a State Department official, in a phone conversation with Venezuela’s ambassador to the Washington-based Organisation of American States, warned that arresting the 42-year-old former mayor would bring serious negative consequences with international ramifications.

“These are unacceptable, insolent demands,” Maduro said during a televised address on Sunday night. “I don’t take orders from anyone in the world.”

US officials have denied any plotting to oust Maduro. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday expressed concern over the rising tensions and violence surrounding the protests.

“We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez,” Kerry said in a statement. “These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”

Watch: Clashes break out in Venezuela protests

A foreign ministry statement said Maduro’s government “flatly rejects remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry, insofar as they represent yet another manoeuvre by the government in Washington to promote and legitimise attempts to destabilise the Venezuelan democracy unleashed by violent groups in recent days”.

During a failed two-day coup against Maduro’s predecessor in 2002, the United States voiced support for a non-elected interim leader and not the elected president at the time, staunch US critic Hugo Chavez. That move has deeply undermined Washington’s credibility in Latin America to this day.

Chase for leftist leader

Venezuela, the OPEC member with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, remains mired in a deepening economic crisis that critics blame on policies that Maduro largely inherited from Chavez.

In his TV speech, Maduro called for a march by oil workers on Tuesday beginning at the same central plaza in Caracas where Lopez said he would rally with supporters the same day, setting up the potential for clashes between the opposing forces.

Students have said groups of hooded assailants backed by the government are responsible for the clashes.

The Harvard-educated Lopez has been at the centre of rising tensions in Venezuela since he led the biggest demonstration yet against Maduro’s 10-month-old government, mobilising more than 10,000 people on Wednesday to peacefully protest hardships ranging from rampant crime to 56 per cent inflation.

Lopez is the most prominent of a group of opposition hardliners who are challenging two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles for leadership of the anti-Maduro movement.

The government blamed him for the mayhem that erupted after the rally ended and a group of students battled with security forces and armed pro-government militias, leaving three dead. Most of the demonstrators had gone home before the violence broke out.

Lopez announced his plans a few hours before Maduro’s speech, appearing in a video shot at an undisclosed location. He said he did not fear arrest but accused authorities of trying to violate his constitutional right to protest Maduro’s government.

“This Tuesday the 18th, I would like to invite you all to march together from Plaza Venezuela – where on February 12 a glimmer of hope started to burn for change in everyone’s interest – to the Justice Ministry,” said Lopez, who heads the country’s Popular Will party.

He said that after Tuesday’s march to the Interior Ministry, he planned to walk the final steps alone to the agency to deliver a petition demanding a full investigation of the government’s role in the deaths. He said he would surrender to officials then in answer to an arrest order on charges ranging from vandalism of public property to terrorism and homicide.

“I haven’t committed any crime,” said Lopez, who has not been seen in public since a news conference Wednesday night after the bloodshed. “If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I’ll submit myself to this persecution.”

He urged supporters to wear white shirts and march peacefully with him to the Interior Ministry.

If there is a decision to legally throw me in jail I’ll submit myself to this persecution
Leopoldo Lopez, Popular Will party head

Lopez’s comments came after security forces raided his home and that of his parents late on Saturday, seeking to serve the arrest order. Lopez was not at either residence in Caracas’ leafy eastern district when national guardsmen and military intelligence officials arrived.

Aides said neighbours banged on pots and pans to protest what they considered an arbitrary detention order.

The raids capped another night of protests during which security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a group of about 500 students who vowed to remain on the streets until all arrested anti-government demonstrators are released. Authorities said 23 people were being treated for injuries, none of them life-threatening.

“We are going to continue in the streets, without violence,” Gabriela Arellano, a student leader from the University of the Andes, told a crowd, demanding that Maduro disarm the “collectives”, a reference to civilian support groups organised by the government when Chavez ruled.

With additional reporting from AFP