- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Venezuela and the United States this week show there has been little thawing in the tense relations between the two nations — more than six months after the death of outspoken Washington critic President Hugo Chavez and a week after President Obama was willing to talk by phone with Iran’s new president.

Despite the recent U.S. overtures to other hostile regimes, the gap between Washington and Caracas may simply be too vast for the administration to bridge, particularly since Venezuela’s internal economic and political realities appear to have created a situation in which new President Nicolas Maduro finds it more beneficial to pursue confrontation than reconciliation with the United States.

With Venezuela facing a severe foreign currency shortage and 45 percent annual inflation, analysts say, Mr. Maduro is likely pulling a page from his predecessor’s playbook — hoping insults hurled at Washington will return political benefits at home.

On Monday, Mr. Maduro, whom Mr. Chavez personally groomed as a successor, expelled the top American diplomat and two other officials from the U.S. Embassy, claiming they were involved in a subversive plot to sabotage the Venezuela’s electrical grid.

Mr. Obama retaliated Tuesday by ordering three Venezuelan diplomats to leave the United States.

By Wednesday, the Obama administration showed no signs of trying to calm the waters.

“We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s allegations that U.S. diplomats were in any way involved in some type of conspiracy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “Our officials were conducting normal diplomatic engagement, and, as we’ve said many times, we maintain regular contact with people across the Venezuelan political spectrum.”

Mr. Maduro had accused U.S. Charge d’Affaires Kelly Keiderling — along with consular officer David Moo and political section officer Elizabeth Hoffman — of collaborating with “extreme right” political factions as part of a conspiracy to sabotage the South American nation’s electrical grid.

The pursuit of such tactics by Washington, he said, made it impossible to for Venezuela to consider a warming of relations.

“The day that the government of President Obama rectifies the situation we will establish new points of contact to discuss common issues,” Mr. Maduro said, The Associated Press reported.

At the State Department, officials said Mr. Maduro’s claims could be tied to travel the U.S. diplomats made to an area of Venezuela where the nation’s central hydroelectric power plant is located — but that they had done nothing more than “normal diplomatic engagement” while there.

Mr. Carney said the expulsion was “clearly an effort to distract from [Venezuela’s] domestic problems.”

Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the White House may have a point. By expelling U.S. diplomats, Mr. Shifter said, Mr. Maduro was employing the long-honed Chavez populist tactic of tapping deep-seated mistrust of Washington by economically depressed Venezuelans.

“Chavez had a flair of profiting off bashing the United States in ways that would excite his base and arouse support,” said Mr. Shifter, adding that Mr. Maduro is scrambling to shore up support of longtime Chavez supporters ahead of state-level elections slated for December.

“This is all internal politics for Maduro, to make sure that he solidifies his position within the Chavista movement and that he’s seen as a worthy heir of Chavez who will continue the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ of defying the United States,” Mr. Shifter said. “Standing up to the U.S. and expelling diplomats is a way for Maduro to show his Chavista credentials, because there are doubts about it.”

Mr. Maduro’s government has struggled to right the economy and deal with regular power outages since Mr. Chavez’s death in March.

“Venezuelans realize that the expulsion of the U.S. officials is just a red herring,” said Christopher Sabatini, the senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York.

Washington’s reputation in Venezuela suffered significantly after the George W. Bush administration was perceived by many in Latin America to have backed a brief 2002 coup attempt against Mr. Chavez.

What Mr. Maduro has done now, according to Mr. Sabatini, is “give a degree of legitimacy back to the United States.”

“People know this is a ruse,” he said. “So what this does is finally give the U.S. enough space to be able to talk about human rights in Venezuela, which are deteriorating — to talk about the freedom of expression, freedom of association and electoral integrity without everyone saying, ‘Oh, don’t speak out now you don’t want to offend the Venezuelan government.’”

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