The State Department vehemently denied claims made by senior Venezuelan officials just hours before the country's president, Hugo Chavez, died Tuesday that the United States was attempting to destabilize the South American nation.
While Mr. Chavez was apparently still clinging to life on Tuesday morning, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced plans to expel a U.S. Embassy official who he said had met with the Venezuelan military as part of a plan to undermine the nation's security.
During a long and fiery speech, Mr. Madura also repeated an accusation that Mr. Chavez had made himself in 2011, that Washington was in some way nefariously involved in the Venezuelan president's contraction of an unspecified cancer, according to a report on the speech by National Public Radio.
News of the accusation sent sparks flying in Foggy Bottom, where Patrick Ventrell, the State Department's deputy spokesman, was quick to issue a statement that "we completely reject the Venezuelan government's claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government."
Mr. Ventrell added that the "assertion that the United States was somehow involved in causing President Chavez's illness is absurd, and we definitively reject it."
News reports identified the expelled American embassy official as Air Force Attache David Del Monaco.
Moments after the release of Mr. Ventrell's statement, it was announced that Mr. Chavez had lost his battle with cancer. The news set off a wave of concern in the Latin American foreign policy community over the extent to which Venezuela may be rocked by social and political unrest in the days and weeks ahead.
In the case of a president's death, the Venezuelan constitution stipulates that the nation must hold an election for a new leader. In recent months, however, many inside and outside of Venezuela have openly questioned whether the document can withstand the expected power vacuum created by Mr. Chavez's passing.
Mr. Chavez, who oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in the constitution in 2009, won a third term in last October. As his battle with cancer intensified after the election, he tapped Mr. Maduro, a former bus driver and union activist, to become his vice president.
Most analysts saw the move as an attempt to position Mr. Maduro, who previously served as Venezuela's foreign minister, to take over the presidency should Mr. Chavez die.
Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state-level governor and leader of a loose-knit coalition of opposition parties, lost to Mr. Chavez in the October election. Some believe he has as good a chance at winning a runoff as Mr. Maduro, who is unlikely to stray from the socialist platform Mr. Chavez established.
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, called it "difficult to predict who will take the reins in Venezuela."
While Mr. Shifter wrote that "the opposition remains weak and lacks a coherent, unified platform," Mr. Capriles has "showed leadership capacity and could well be a major player in the future."
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