CARACAS, Venezuela (AP): President Nicolas Maduro announced on Monday the expulsion of the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and two other embassy employees for allegedly conspiring with the political opposition to sabotage the economy and power grid.
Maduro made the announcement during a live TV appearance and said they had 48 hours to leave the country.
“Out of Venezuela,” the leftist leader said, then added in English: “Yankees go home.”
He did offer any details on the diplomats’ alleged transgressions but said they had met with opposition and labor leaders in the southwestern state of Bolivar, is home to a number of troubled state-owned foundries and Venezuela’s main hydroelectric plant.
“I don’t care what actions the government of Barack Obama takes,” Maduro said. “We’re not going to permit an imperialist government to come and bring money and see how essential companies can be halted and see how to take away electricity and shut down all of Venezuela.”
The expulsions come as Venezuela’s economy looks increasingly troubled during the approach to Dec. 8 municipal elections. Annual inflation is at more than 45 percent and the government is running short of foreign currency.
In naming the three diplomats, Maduro pronounced clearly the name of Kelly Keiderling, the charge d’affaires who is the top US diplomat in the country. The other two diplomats’ names were less clearly enunciated.
The US embassy had not yet been officially informed of the expulsions when Maduro announced them, said Gregory Adams, its acting deputy chief of mission.
Venezuela and the United States have been without ambassadors since 2010, when the late President Hugo Chavez refused to accept a newly named US ambassador. In 2008, Chavez expelled then-US Ambassador Patrick Duddy in “solidarity” with Bolivia, which was booting the U.S. ambassador there, but allowed him to return the following year.
Keiderling arrived at the embassy in July 2011 as deputy chief of mission after previously working in embassies including in Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Botswana, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Interests section in Cuba.
The oil-rich OPEC member country has been plagued by worsening power outages since 2010. The opposition blames neglect and poor maintenance, while it alleges mismanagement and corruption at troubled state-owned aluminum, iron and bauxite foundries in Bolivar.
Maduro blames sabotage by the “extreme right” for the blackouts and food shortages, but has provided no evidence. Like Chavez, he has a history of making unsubstantiated accusations against the United States and his political opponents.
Last week, Maduro said he had canceled a planned trip to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly due to an unspecified US plot. Since his April election, Maduro has claimed five attempts to assassinate him have been foiled. In no instance did he provide evidence.
The last time Venezuela expelled US diplomats was on March 5, when it ejected two military attaches for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation. That move came several hours before Maduro announced that Chavez had died of cancer.
Chavez governed Venezuela for 14 years, solidifying control of all branches of government as he won solid backing from the poor with generous social spending and blamed the United States for an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow him in 2002.
In recent years, however, Venezuela’s woes have been compounded by corruption, rampant violent crime, worsening power outages and increasing shortages of food and medicines.
At the same time, Maduro’s government has been accused by international human rights and press freedom groups of cracking down on free speech and independent media political activity.
An apparent thaw in US-Venezuelan relations appeared in the offing in early June after Foreign Minister Elias Jaua met with Secretary of State John Kerry.
But Maduro scuttled it after Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, accused Venezuela of a crackdown on civil society during her confirmation hearing the following month.
Maduro narrowly won election in April over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles, who claims the victory was fraudulent.
In a tweet Monday, Capriles called the expulsion of the US diplomats “pure smoke to mask that he can’t handle the country.”