By Andrew Cawthorne and Eyanir Chinea
CARACAS Feb 25 The United States on Tuesday
ordered three Venezuelan diplomats to leave in reprisal for
President Nicolas Maduro's expulsion of three American embassy
staff accused of fomenting unrest that has killed at least 13
Students and others opposed to Maduro want him to quit over
high rates of crime and inflation, lack of basic foodstuffs and
what they call his heavy-handed suppression of their protests.
Disputes between the ideologically opposed governments in
Washington and Caracas were common during the 1999-2013 rule of
late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and have continued under his
When it comes to oil, though, pragmatism trumps politics and
the United States remains the OPEC member's main export market.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that two first
secretaries and a second secretary at the Venezuelan embassy in
Washington had been declared personae non gratae in response to
Caracas' Feb. 17 move against the three Americans.
"They have been allowed 48 hours to leave the United
States," it said.
Venezuela and the United States have been without
ambassadors since 2008, and Maduro expelled the three U.S.
diplomats last week on accusations of recruiting students to
hold violent, rock-throwing protests against him.
Washington has rejected the claims as baseless.
Despite the latest dispute, Maduro's government proposed
Maximilien Sanchez, a former envoy to Brazil, as its new
ambassador to Washington on Tuesday to try to kick-start talks
and combat what it sees as propaganda.
"U.S. society needs to know the truth about Venezuela,"
Maduro said in the latest of his daily speeches to the nation at
a meeting with state governors late on Monday.
"They (Americans) think we're killing each other. They think
we can't go out to the corner. They're asking for U.S. military
intervention in Venezuela. What madness! Should that happen, you
and I will be out with a gun defending our territory."
The crisis, in which more than 500 people have been arrested
and about 150 injured over two weeks, has brought remonstrations
from the U.S. government and attracted wider attention.
The great majority of those detained in connection with the
protests have been freed pending trial, but celebrities such as
Madonna and Cher have condemned Maduro.
The 51-year-old former union activist, who narrowly won a
presidential election in April to replace Chavez, says
international media are in league with "imperialists" abroad to
project an image of chaos and repression in Venezuela.
MARADONA BACKS MADURO
Argentine former soccer great Diego Maradona backed that
stance while signing a deal to be a commentator for
Caracas-based Telesur network at the upcoming World Cup in
"We're seeing all the lies that the imperialists are saying
and inventing. I'm prepared to be a soldier for Venezuela in
whatever is required," said Maradona, a friend of both Chavez
and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, before declaring:
"Long live Chavez, long live Maduro, long live Venezuela!"
Sporadic protests continued on Tuesday, with students
mounting roadblocks in the more affluent eastern districts of
the capital. In a sign of spreading violence, officials and
residents in the provincial cities of San Cristobal, Maracaibo
and Maracay all reported looting.
Demonstrations began at the start of the month but
mushroomed after the first deaths on Feb. 12. The students are
demanding Maduro resign over Venezuela's high rates of crime and
inflation and shortages of staples such as milk and flour.
They also accuse him of brutally putting down their
"I'm not going until he goes," said student Pablo Jimenez,
24, pointing to a photo of Maduro with a big red cross painted
over it as he tried to start a fire on a road in the wealthy
Sebucan district of Caracas soon after dawn.
Moderate opposition figures have called for peaceful
protests only and voiced despair at the tactics of barricading
roads and burning trash in largely middle-class neighborhoods
that are already overwhelmingly pro-opposition.
"There are thousands of reasons to protest but you have to
be aware of the risks and the costs of the barricades, which
could end up strangling our neighbors and the protests
themselves before the government," wrote Ramon Muchacho, the
opposition mayor of the upscale Chacao district of Caracas.
CARNIVAL HOLIDAY COMING
As on most days, both sides organized rallies in the capital
and elsewhere. In Caracas, the opposition planned to march to
the Cuban embassy to protest alleged interference in Venezuelan
affairs by the island's communist government.
Many Caracas residents stayed home, schools were largely
closed and some businesses also stayed shut.
Residents of Caracas' poorer west side have staged only a
few minor demonstrations, though government critics there have
joined in traditional protests of banging pots and pans at their
windows during Maduro's hours-long television broadcasts.
The demonstrations are the biggest challenge to the
president's 10-month-old government, though there is no sign
they could topple him or affect oil shipments.
Venezuela is Latin America's biggest exporter of crude oil
and has the world's largest petroleum reserves.
Venezuela's sovereign bond prices, which had tumbled on the
unrest, rallied broadly on Tuesday, due to investor optimism
over previously planned changes to a foreign currency auction
system. The price on the benchmark 2027 bond rose 1.87 points,
pulling the yield down to 14.76 percent.
Total returns across Venezuela's sovereign yield curve rose
1.23 percent on the day, with spreads contracting by 39 basis
points to 1,290 basis points above corresponding U.S.
Treasuries, according to JPMorgan's EMBI+ index.
Venezuelans are approaching a long weekend for Carnival, and
Maduro has also declared Thursday and Friday national holidays.
That could take the heat out of the situation as many people
head for the beach, though some Venezuelans speculate it might
have the opposite effect because people will have more time to
protest should they want to.
Maduro has also invited church, business and opposition
leaders to meet him on Wednesday at the Miraflores presidential
palace for a "national peace conference".