U.S. expels 3 Venezuelan diplomats amid growing political row

Venezuela is protesting Washington’s decision to expel three of its diplomats in a tit-for-tat purge of embassy officials that has brought relations between the countries to a standstill.

The U.S. State Department announced that it was expelling Venezuela’s Chargé d’affaires Calixto Ortega, Second Secretary Mónica Sánchez and Venezuela’s Houston Consul Marisol Gutiérrez.

The move comes after Venezuela on Monday ordered the expulsion of three U.S. officials, including the embassy’s top diplomat, amid accusations that they met with opposition leaders and were plotting to “sabotage” the economy and the electrical grid.

The U.S. State Department said the three foreign diplomats have 48 hours to leave the country.

“It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action. It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries and not a serious way for a country to conduct its foreign policy,” the State Department said in a statement. “We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s allegations of U.S. government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government. We reject the specific claims against the three members of our Embassy.”

The move wasn’t unexpected. When Caracas ejected two U.S. officials in March, Washington responded in kind.

But on Wednesday, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister said the U.S. actions were not “reciprocal.”

“Our officials were never so bold as to meet with groups that oppose the government of President Barack Obama, or with people interested in acting against the government of the United States,” the ministry said in a statement.

In a farewell speech Tuesday, Kelly Keiderling, the U.S. deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the embassy in Caracas, said she and her colleagues had done nothing wrong.

“The accusations are baseless and show that, perhaps, there’s a misunderstanding about the essential work of diplomacy,” she said. Diplomatic officials are required to meet with political, economic and media leaders in their host countries.

“Without this diplomatic work we’d simply be hollering at each other from our capitals,” she said. “That’s not the kind of relationship we want.”

President Nicolás Maduro has said the two countries will not have “cordial” relations or even communication until the United States shows some “respect” to his Andean nation.

On Wednesday, during a meeting with the military, he took offense to Keiderling’s comments calling her “haughty and arrogant.”

“If they start playing funny I will throw them all out,” he said of U.S. embassy officials. “No one is going to blackmail me because no one is going to conspire under our noses.”

The two countries have not had ambassadors since 2010.

Despite the bluster, the two nations have deep ties. Venezuela is the United States’ third largest trading partner in Latin America and 14th overall with $56 billion in commerce last year. Venezuela is also the United States’ fourth-largest supplier of oil.