Venezuela expels top US diplomats in sanctions retaliation

Todd Robinson talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, on May 18, 2018.
Todd Robinson talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, on May 18, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

CARACAS (BLOOMBERG) - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro said he is expelling the top two US diplomats in the country after America imposed sanctions in the wake of a disputed election, saying that the men had meddled in internal politics.

Charge d'Affaires Todd Robinson and Consul General Brian Naranjo were declared persona non grata and must leave Venezuela in 48 hours, Maduro said on Tuesday (May 22) afternoon.

The expulsions, and the arrest of six military officers, came in the wake of Maduro's re-election to another six-year term on Sunday.

The next day, the US prohibited purchases of debts owed to the government, including to the crucial state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela. The move was meant to draw the financial net tighter around a lifeline industry without punishing a hungry and downtrodden population.

"I condemn all sanctions hurting Venezuela," Maduro said in a televised address. "We'll present proof to the country of the military, economic and political conspiracy from the embassy's charge d'affaires. Enough of conspiracies. It seems impossible to have respectful relations with the US government."

Maduro's order represents a continuation of long frigid relations between a petro-state failing after a two-decade experiment with socialism and one of its largest commercial partners. While Venezuela sells the US thousands of barrels of Venezuelan crude daily, it has long accused America of trying to undermine the authoritarian regime.

Efforts to reach Robinson were not immediately successful; Naranjo declined to comment.

 
 

President Donald Trump's order this week covers all transactions involving debts owed to the Venezuelan government or state-owned enterprises, including accounts receivable. It also prohibits the sale, transfer or pledging of collateral of any equity interest in which the Venezuelan government has a 50 per cent or greater stake.

Among his claims, Maduro said Robinson and Naranjo had pressured opposition candidates not to run in this year's presidential elections. The main opposition coalition boycotted the vote, and polling places on Sunday were the emptiest in decades.

NOT SPEAKING

Venezuela and the US have not had ambassadors in one another's countries since 2010, when the late Hugo Chavez refused to receive a new US envoy. Relations have remained icy under Maduro, with the leader regularly blaming both the Obama and Trump administrations for his country's crushing economic crisis.

In 2013, Maduro expelled the US Embassy's charge d'affaires and two other top officials, accusing the diplomats of conspiring with the opposition to destabilise the country.

Separately, Maduro further asserted his determination to remain in control with the weekend arrests of six military officers. The arrests followed nine detentions in March, according to Rocio San Miguel, the chairwoman of Control Ciudadano, a military watchdog. Among the arrested was Ruperto Molina Ramirez, a colonel who commands the aviation special forces. Local media outlets said the charge was rebellion.

A Defence Ministry spokeswoman declined to comment.

"Maduro feels unstable," San Miguel said on Tuesday. "His major threat is not the oposition nor the US but from within the armed forces. There is no doubt the witch hunt at the armed forces is going to increase from now on, after elections."

The President has rewarded the military with lucrative sectors of the economy and placed some officers in high-level posts at state oil producer PDVSA, but he also has ferreted out opponents among the ranks.

In March, 20 military officers were in prison, according to Gonzalo Himiob, head of criminal justice watchdog group Foro Penal.