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Miffed Hugo Chavez says he'll close Venezuela's Miami consulate

President Hugo Chávez on Friday announced an "administrative shutdown" of the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, in response to the U.S. State Department’s decision to expel the consul in that diplomatic post, Livia Acosta, who had been accused of participating in an Iranian plot against the United States.

The administrative shutdown, which Chávez described as an interim measure while his government makes a final decision, leaves more than 200,000 Venezuelans in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina without a consular site nearby where they can turn to for assistance.

In a speech before the National Assembly, Chávez said that the State Department’s decision against Acosta was unfair, spurred by the pressure exerted by the extreme-right sectors that exist in Miami.

"Foreign Minister Nicolás [Maduro] recommended that I close the consulate. We’ll shut it down, then. We’re going to shut it down. There will be no consulate in Miami," the president said, to applause from the ruling party legislators.

"What we’re going to do is an administrative shutdown of the consulate while we study the situation, because it’s unfair, it’s abusive, it’s immoral, the expulsion of the lady consul who was doing her obligation, her job," he added.

Chávez did not say when the action will be taken. In addition to Miami, Venezuela has consulates in New Orleans, Houston, Boston, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and San Juan, Puerto Rico. It also offers consular services in its Washington embassy.

The State Department expelled Acosta this week, declaring her persona non grata, after release of a recording that linked the diplomat to an Iranian plot against the United States and the appearance of documents that certify that she is part of Chávez’s secret police.

In the recording, made when the consul was a cultural attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico City, Acosta asks an alleged Mexican computer hacker the access codes to nuclear installations in the United States.

The former consul has denied the accusations, which were broadcast in a Univision documentary. But documents obtained by El Nuevo Heald indicate that Acosta, as well as vice consul Edgard González Belandria, who directs the issuance of passports in the Miami consulate, are subscribers to the savings plan of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN, for its name in Spanish), which means that they are on the payroll of that police organization.

The scandal swirling around the official led U.S. legislators this week to ask the authorities to begin an investigation of all of Venezuela’s diplomatic offices in the United States, on suspicion that Acosta is just one member of a wide espionage network.

In his speech, Chávez said those accusations are a concoction by “the empire.”

“There is no proof that she [Acosta] was engaging in espionage,” he said. “Her expulsion was infamous [] It was done under pressure from the extreme-right sectors. That was the reason why they expelled the consul.”

The decision leaves hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans without a nearby place where they can deal with passports, certificates, legalizations and transfers from Venezuela.

If the shutdown lasts throughout this year, it could also imperil the vote of about 20,000 Venezuelans who registered to vote in Miami for the presidential election in Venezuela in October. More than 95 percent of those voters have traditionally voted in favor of the opposition.

Representatives in Florida of the Board of Democratic Unity (MUD), an organization that brings together Venezuela’s main opposition parties, said they’ll go ahead with the primary elections scheduled for Feb. 12, which will select the opposition candidate who will face Chávez in October.

“We confirm that the primaries in Miami, Georgia and the two Carolinas will be held on Feb. 12,” said Pedro Mena, executive secretary of MUD in Miami.

“The best reaction against this absurd measure of retaliation, which actually punishes only the Venezuelans who live in these states, is to vote massively on Feb. 12 [] We [MUD] assume the responsibility for organizing and carrying out this vote,” he said.

Expressions of repudiation were issued by the Miami-Dade and Broward boards of directors of Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, who said in a communiqué that the measure tramples the rights of the Venezuelan citizens who live in the United States.

“This will have very serious consequences for Venezuelans who live in these states, because they’ll be unable to do their legal business in this country. As everyone knows, for Venezuelan citizens to enter this country, they now need documents other than their passports, such as their Proof of Life,” or background checks.

José Colina, president of Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile (VEPPEX), lamented that his compatriots in the United States will end up being harmed by the espionage operations begun by Chávez in the United States.

Colina, whose organization participated last month in a demonstration outside the consulate rejecting Acosta’s actions, said the measure also serves to withdraw SEBIN operatives who work in the consulate, before they can be investigated and expelled from the U.S.

“They do this to hide what they’re doing. But the only people harmed are the Venezuelans who live in the diplomatic jurisdiction, who are now left without representation and will have no place where to do their paperwork,” Colina said from Miami.