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.
It is not clear whether he will be able to peel enough of Chavez's mourning supporters into the opposition political camp to overcome Mr. Maduro's base of support.
Mr. Capriles, a state-level governor, previously attempted to win over Chavez supporters — known as "Chavistas" — by describing himself as "progressive" and eager to carry on with Chavez-style social programs.
The catch is his ties to a notoriously fractious coalition of anti-Chavez political groups, whose common ground has long been defined by a collective antipathy toward the policies put into place by Chavez.
Such realities appeared to hamstring Mr. Capriles' campaign when he ran, unsuccessfully, for president against Chavez in October. Chavez won despite suffering publicly from cancer at the time.
Without a power change in Caracas, troubled U.S.-Venezuelan relations are likely to continue, just as they did in 2006 when Venezuela expelled a U.S. naval commander from Caracas and the Bush administration responded by kicking out the chief aide to the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington.
In 2008, the two nations expelled each other's ambassadors, only to have them reinstated a year later when President Obama entered the White House. While relations appeared poised to warm in 2009, the mood had soured again by 2010 when the Chavez government refused to accept the Obama administration's ambassador nominee for the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. In response, the White House re-expelled the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington.
Early last year, the Obama administration expelled Venezuela's counsel general in Miami amid accusations that she had discussed a possible cyberattack on U.S. soil. The Chavez government responded by closing the Miami office.
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