BOGOTA, Colombia -- One day after the U.S. Embassy in Caracas said it was suspending appointments for first-time applicants of tourism visas due to lack of staff, Venezuelan authorities called it a “reprisal” but also said they would seek solutions.
In a statement Sunday, the U.S. Embassy said it could no longer accept B-1 and B-2 tourism visa requests from first-time applicants “until further notice” because of a lack of consular officials. Venezuela ejected three consular officers last month on allegations that they had been fueling ongoing protests, and the embassy said the Venezuelan government was “delaying issuing visas” for new embassy staff.
On Monday, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello called the decision a “reprisal” but said the government was willing to work with the State Department.
“If they need to send more officials to Venezuela to take care of visas, then we will very gladly collaborate with them,” he said, according to El Universal newspaper.
State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf denied that the consular pullback was retribution amid souring bilateral relations.
“This decision was completely resource-based, personnel-based. It was just a numbers issue,” she said. “We just don’t have the manpower now because our folks were expelled and we don’t have new people that have replaced them to just handle the applicants.”
The U.S. Embassy in Caracas was not authorized to provide additional details.
The embassy will still take visa applications in “emergency” cases and first-time applicants can make their requests in U.S. embassies and consular offices outside of Venezuela. The embassy said it will also work with those renewing tourism visas.
“Once our consular office is allowed to have normal levels we expect to renew appointments for those seeking the B-1/B-2 visa for the first time,” the embassy said.
The news comes amid simmering tensions in Venezuela, where opposition protests that began last month have left at least 33 dead on both sides of the political divide.
On Monday, Antonio Parra, a National Guard member, died during street demonstrations in the southwestern city of Merida, the government said.
On Sunday, Adriana Urquiola, 28 and pregnant, was killed in Guaicaipuro, outside Caracas, as she walked toward an anti-government barricade after the bus she was riding was stuck in traffic caused by the roadblock
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused the United States of backing the demonstrations and trying to topple his 11-month-old administration.
Even so, Maduro has said he wants the two nations to exchange ambassadors for the first time since 2010 and invited the United States to join talks to overcome the crisis.
The overtures come as the government has been cracking down on the demonstrations and gone after opposition leaders it says are driving the discontent.
On Monday, Cabello announced that opposition Deputy María Corina Machado would not be allowed into the National Assembly, had been stripped of her parliamentary immunity, and would be investigated for treason.
The announcement comes after Panama invited Machado on Friday to address the Organization of American States. Venezuela’s allies in the OAS kept her intervention from being public, but Cabello argued that by accepting the invitation Machado became a “Panamanian official” in violation of the constitution.
“What does it mean that she’s no longer a deputy? She does not have parliamentary immunity, does not have access to the National Assembly,” Cabello said. “[She] can be investigated for all the things that have been happening…including treason.”
Machado is one of the government’s most outspoken critics and has been on the front lines of the protests that began early February amid the nation’s deteriorating security and economic situation.
In a statement from Peru, where she is attending a conference, Machado said Cabello did not have the constitutional right to remove her from office.
“I will remain a deputy until the people of Venezuela decide,” she said. “The Venezuelan people know me and I will stay by their side in this fight for liberty and democracy.”
Last month, the government detained opposition leader Leopoldo López for his role in the protests. And last week, the government detained two opposition mayors on allegations that they have been complicit in the demonstrations that have paralyzed parts of the country.
On Tuesday, foreign ministers of the Union of South American Nations — a body that is largely controlled by Venezuela’s allies — are expected to begin meeting in Caracas to discuss the crisis.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.