CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela’s vice president called in the nation’s top leaders Tuesday hours after ailing President Hugo Chávez apparently took a turn for the worse, and announced on national television that a U.S. Embassy attache was being expelled for meeting with military officers and planning to destabilize the country.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua also announced the expulsion of a second U.S. official, also a U.S. Air Force attache.
Supporters of the 58-year-old president visited churches to pray for his health, a day after the government described his condition as “very delicate” after undergoing cancer surgery in December.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro told Venezuela’s high military command and civilian leaders that the U.S. Embassy’s Air Force attache, Col. David Delmonaco, had 24 hours to leave the country. He said the official had been spying on Venezuela’s military.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Greg Adams confirmed Delmonaco’s identity but had no immediate comment.
In Washington, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, said, “We are aware of the allegations made by Venezuelan Vice President Maduro over state-run television in Caracas, and can confirm that our Air Attache … is en route back to the United States.”
Late Monday, Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas said Chávez was suffering from “a new, severe infection.” The state news agency identified it as a respiratory infection.
Chávez has been undergoing “chemotherapy of strong impact,” Villegas added without providing further details.
Chávez has neither been seen nor heard from, except for photos released in mid-February, since submitting to a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area. It was first diagnosed in June 2011.
The government said Chávez returned home on Feb. 18 and has been confined to Caracas’ military hospital ever since.
Villegas said Chávez was “standing by Christ and life, conscious of the difficulties he faces.”
He also lashed out at “the corrupt Venezuelan right” for what he called a psychological war seeking “scenarios of violence as a pretext for foreign intervention.” He called on Chávez’s supporters, who include thousands of well-armed militiamen, to be “on a war footing.”
Upon Chávez’s death, the opposition would contest the government’s candidate in a snap election that it argues should have been called after Chávez was unable to be sworn in on Jan. 10 as the constitution stipulates.
Indeed, the campaigning has already begun, although undeclared. Maduro, who Chávez has said should succeed him, has frequently commandeered all broadcast channels, Chávez-style, to tout the “revolution” and vilify the opposition.
At a small new chapel on the military hospital’s grounds christened “New Hope,” a few dozen supporters gathered to pray for Chávez, many weeping. But the grounds were otherwise eerily quiet, and Caracas’ streets teemed with the usual snarls of traffic, street vendors and bank lines as people went about normal business.
Chávez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army paratroop commander, who rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his same kind of force of personality.