Venezuela’s President Maduro rages at US ‘empire’ as he expels top diplomat for ‘conspiring’
Tensions have been running high in the wake of Maduro’s weekend election victory, which the White House branded a sham
President Nicolas Maduro has expelled the top US diplomat in Venezuela and his deputy Tuesday for allegedly conspiring against the socialist government and trying to sabotage the weekend presidential election.
“The empire doesn’t dominate us here,” Maduro said in a televised address, giving charge d’affaires Todd Robinson and his deputy, Brian Naranjo, 48 hours to leave the country. “We’ve had enough of your conspiring.”
Tensions between the US and Venezuela have mounted following Maduro’s victory in presidential election Sunday, a vote that the White House and others have branded a “sham.”
Maduro said in his speech that Robinson and Naranjo, whom he referred to as the head of the CIA in Venezuela, both personally pressured several anti-government presidential aspirants not to compete in the race. Despite widespread discontent over Venezuela’s economic collapse, most opposition parties decided to boycott the election after officials blocked their most popular leaders from competing against Maduro.
Maduro also accused the Trump administration, which toughened financial sanctions on his government Monday, of seeking to escalate “aggressions” against the Venezuelan people. US officials have also said the administration might consider imposing oil sanctions on Venezuela.
“The dominant and decisive reason why the opposition progressively withdrew from the elections was the decision by the extremist US government to not validate or legitimise a presidential election that they knew fully was going to be won in any scenario by the candidate of Nicolas Maduro,” the president said.
Robinson was travelling in Venezuela’s western state of Merida when he learned through social media of Maduro’s order, according to a local radio broadcast of him speaking at an event. Robinson said he and his deputy “strongly reject the accusations.”
“This is my first visit but it won’t be my last visit to Merida or to Venezuela,” he said.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert in Washington echoed Robinson’s words during a briefing with reporters, saying that USofficials consider them “false allegations.”
In his long career, Robinson, a career diplomat, has worked in Colombia, Bolivia, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. He earned a reputation for speaking out as ambassador to Guatemala and several times faced calls there for his expulsion.
He has been similarly provocative in his short stay in Caracas.
Days after landing in Caracas in December, he posed for pictures next to a statue of independence hero Simon Bolivar in a pro-government plaza and called Maduro’s constitutional assembly “illegitimate.”
He has also made several forceful calls for the release of US citizen Joshua Holt, who has been jailed for more than two years without a trial on weapons charges.
Last week, Robinson rushed with cameras in tow to the foreign ministry to demand information about Holt after the Utah native appeared in a video from jail saying his life had been threatened during what the US Embassy deemed a prison “riot.”
Robinson said nobody in the Venezuelan government would met with him, but socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello denied the snub, accusing the diplomat of staging a “show”
But despite the frequent clashes, Maduro had seemed little inclined to declare Robinson persona non grata, as he and his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, did several times previously to US diplomats.
Last month, Maduro even welcomed Robinson to the presidential palace for a private meeting with visiting US Senator Dick Durbin.
Venezuela and the U.S. haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010, so Robinson, while preserving his ambassadorial rank, was serving as chief of mission at the hilltop embassy in Caracas.