- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2013

The Obama administration revealed Monday that it had kicked two Venezuelan diplomats out of the United States, offering a clear signal that U.S.-Venezuelan relations are unlikely to warm quickly after the death last week of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

While foreign policy insiders downplayed the move as just the latest in a years-old diplomatic tit-for-tat between Washington and Caracas, Venezuela’s domestic political landscape showed its first signs of hardening in the wake of Chavez’s passing.

Opposition political leader Henrique Capriles Rodonski late Sunday announced his intention to challenge Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, in a presidential election slated for April 14.

The State Department, meanwhile, declared the Venezuelan Embassy’s second secretary Orlando Jose Montanez Olivares and consular officer Camacaro Mata as “personae non gratae” in accordance with Vienna conventions and expelled them.

A State Department spokesman said the expulsions were made in response to Mr. Maduro’s move to kick two U.S. diplomats out of Venezuela last week in the hours before Chavez’s death was made public. While Chavez was clinging to life, Mr. Maduro claimed, the U.S. officials met with the Venezuelan military as part of a plan to undermine the nation’s security.

The State Department has fiercely denied any wrongdoing by the two U.S. diplomats, who have been identified in news reports as Col. David Delmonaco, the Air Force attache, and assistant attache Devlin Kostal.

Similar expulsions have defined the diplomatic relationship between Washington and Caracas since 2002, when Chavez accused the Bush administration of plotting an unsuccessful military coup attempt against him.

Chavez capitalized on the incident as a means of firing up anti-Washington sentiment among his closest supporters.

Mr. Maduro has been riding a wave of emotion among Chavez supporters. As a result, the 50-year-old former bus driver and union activist is the anticipated front-runner heading into April’s election.

Analysts generally agree that he is unlikely to stray even slightly from the hard-line socialist platform established in Venezuela during Chavez’s 14-year hold on the presidency.

With the United States accounting for about 40 percent of Venezuela’s nearly $100 billion a year in oil exports, Washington traditionally has played an outsized a role in the country’s politics.

Chavez gained global notoriety for railing angrily and often against the United States. Mr. Maduro, who last week assumed the position of interim president, has appeared intent on keeping the tradition alive.

The Obama administration seems willing to play along.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said U.S. officials “hope for better relations with Venezuela,” but added that “when our people are thrown out unjustly, we’re going to take reciprocal action.”

What remains to be seen is the extent to which U.S.-Venezuelan relations might be expected to improve should Mr. Capriles, 40, pull off a surprise victory in April.

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