BOGOTA, Colombia -- Just a few months ago, the United States and Venezuela seemed like they were inching toward better relations as they announced that talks were beginning to exchange ambassadors for the first time in three years.
On Tuesday, whatever was left of the diplomatic goodwill seemed to evaporate. The U.S. State Department said it was considering tit-for-tat expulsions 24 hours after Venezuela announced it was ejecting three U.S. officials, including the top-ranking member of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, for plotting “sabotage.”
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday said the two nations would not have “cordial relations or even cordial communications” until the U.S. learns to “respect” his South American nation.
The U.S. State Department has rejected the allegations.
The Venezuelan government also issued a video it said was proof of meddling by the three embassy officials, Kelly Keiderling, Elizabeth Hoffman and David Moo.
The video — set to ominous music — shows the three entering and leaving buildings that the government said belong to the election watchdog group Sumate in Bolivar state and a local mayor who is a member of the opposition.
“For three hours they received information from opposition leaders about the political situation of the state, labor conflicts and corruption in [state-run] companies,” the scrolling text reads. “This was an operation to get updated information, deliver financing and direct destabilizing actions ahead of the upcoming municipal elections.”
The fact that Keiderling — the deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the embassy — would travel to Bolivar state with two other officials “is evidence that the State Department wants to encourage destabilizing activities,” the government said.
Maduro accused the three of plotting with the opposition to “sabotage” the economy and electrical infrastructure.
It’s common practice for embassy officials all over the world to meet with opposition figures and non-profit organizations, said Patrick Duddy, the U.S. ambassador in Venezuela from 2007 to 2010, who was expelled on two different occasions by the late President Hugo Chávez.
“That’s legitimate diplomatic activity,” he said of the visits. “In a genuine democracy it ought to be considered a diplomatic obligation. You need to understand — to the extent that you can as a foreigner — the ebb and flow of the political dynamic.”
In a statement, Sumate said it did not meet with the three officials, but did lend its installations so that the embassy personnel could meet with charities, human rights groups and religious organizations. It also reminded the government that meeting with diplomats “is not a crime.”
The diplomatic spat is unfolding during a tense time in Venezuela. Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves, the country is having trouble keeping its lights on and its shelves stocked with food. Annual inflation is running at 45 percent and its currency control system is falling apart as Venezuelans turn to a thriving black market to exchange their bolivares.
“President Maduro’s decision to expel three U.S. diplomats from our Embassy in Caracas is a clear attempt to distract public attention from the political, social, and economic crises consuming Venezuela,” said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The dramatic economic downturn fueled by unsustainable policies and the erosion of political space in Venezuela are deeply concerning.”
The last time Venezuela expelled U.S. officials in March, the United States retaliated. On Tuesday, the State Department said it’s mulling its options.
“In accordance with Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Article 23 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the United States may take reciprocal action,”’ the State Department said. “We are still considering what actions to take.”
If the U.S. follows through on the threat, Calixto Ortega — Venezuela’s most senior representative in Washington — will be on a plane back home less than seven months after being named the economic attaché to the United States.
For the foreseeable future, diplomatic relations are likely to remain tense, Duddy said.
“I think that relations are going to continue to be very difficult,” he said, “and it will not be made easier by reducing or eliminating senior leadership at the embassy in Caracas.”