- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Obama administration on Tuesday said the Venezuelan government is trying to distract attention from its actions by blaming the U.S. for the political unrest rocking the Latin American nation.

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, whom the Venezuelan government has accused of inciting violent anti-government protests, emerged from hiding to make a speech to thousands of supporters before surrendering to police in Caracas.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has accused the U.S. of backing the student protesters. Over the weekend, he ordered the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats whom he said were supporting opposition plots to topple his socialist government.

Thousands of students have been protesting against the government in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, over the past week.

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said the allegations against the U.S. diplomats are “baseless and false.”

She said the consular officers were “conducting normal outreach activities at universities on student visas, which is something we do around the world as a way to improve the accessibility and transparency of the visa process.”

“We have seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” Ms. Psaki said.

“These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces,” she added.

The decision to expel the U.S. diplomats followed a statement from Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Saturday expressing alarm at the Venezuelan government’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Harvard-educated Mr. Lopez.

“Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide,” Ms. Psaki said Tuesday. “We urge Venezuela’s government to work to address its people’s grievances forthrightly through real, meaningful dialogue.”

She emphasized that the U.S. values its “strong historic and cultural ties with the Venezuelan people, and remains committed to our relationship with them.”

“There is no room for violence by either side,” she said.

The Venezuelan government notified the Obama administration on Monday afternoon about its decision to expel the three consular officers. They were given 48 hours to leave.

Ms. Psaki said the Obama administration is considering a course of action in accordance with the Vienna Conventions that guide diplomatic and consular relations.

Mr. Maduro has expelled U.S. diplomats twice before.