Venezuela says it’s expelling three U.S. diplomats for plotting sabotage

Venezuela accused three U.S. diplomats of trying to destabilize the country. The expulsion marks a new low in already tense U.S.-Venezuela relations.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Monday said he is expelling three U.S. diplomats, including the acting head of the embassy, for trying to “destabilize” the country by encouraging sabotage of the electrical grid and the economy.

The Venezuelan government identified the officials as Kelly Keiderling, Elizabeth Hoffman and David Moo and said they had 48 hours to pack their bags.

Keiderling is the deputy chief of mission and the temporary chargé d’affaires in the absence of an ambassador. Keiderling, who has served in Cuba and Moldova, has been in Venezuela since July 2011, according to the U.S. Embassy website.

The U.S. State Department said it had not received any official notification of expulsions.

“We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s allegations of U.S. government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuela government,” the State Department said in a statement.

Maduro said the three officials had been meeting with union leaders, right-wing politicians, and ruling-party dissidents to encourage them to sabotage the Sidor state-run metal company and the nation’s electrical grid. Maduro said he had “proof” of the scheme but did not offer any Monday

“What would happen if a group of Venezuelan embassy officials had money and began paying to sabotage the gringo economic system?” he asked in Falcon State, where he was commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bárbula. “Get out of Venezuela. Yankee go home.”

He also warned he may be taking other “actions” to “defend the dignity and the peace of Venezuela.”

For months, the administration has been blaming power outages, food shortages, and record-high inflation on shadowy saboteurs and “economic warfare” promoted by the opposition.

On Sept. 3, a large blackout affected almost half the country. Maduro insists it was the result of foul play.

On Monday, he announced he was creating the Strategic Center for Security and Protection of the Fatherland, or CESPPA, that would answer directly to the executive branch and focus on strategic and political intelligence “to uncover, neutralize, and defeat any plan against the country before it takes place.”

The expulsion marks a new low in the rollercoaster ride of U.S.-Venezuelan relations. The last time Maduro kicked out U.S. officials was March 5. A few hours later, he told the nation that cancer-stricken President Hugo Chávez had died.

But things seemed to improve after that. In June, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Elías Jaua announced talks to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010. Those conversations fell apart weeks later.

Last week, Maduro cancelled his plans to address the U.N. General Assembly, saying his enemies had plotted to generate violence that might threaten his life in New York. He also accused President Barack Obama of knowing about the plans but refusing to stop them.

Maduro offered few details about the plot, and the State Department denied his claims.

The fiery rhetoric comes as Maduro is poised to face his first real political test. On Dec. 8, the nation will choose municipal leaders, and some analysts are predicting a backlash against an administration that has been struggling to overcome an economic crisis.

Ms. Hoffman’s and Mr. Moo’s names were initially misspelled based on the government of Venezuela’s report.

Wyss, the Miami Herald’s Andean bureau chief, reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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