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Maduro expels US consular staff as street protests continue
February 17, 2014, 4:36 pm

Maduro holds up an image of street violence adding that the opposition and Washington have been inciting the protests [Xinhua]

Maduro holds up an image of street violence adding that the opposition and Washington have been inciting the protests [Xinhua]

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro expelled three American consular officials from Caracas on Monday, accusing the United States of conspiring with anti-government protesters to overthrow his ten-month old rule.

“Let them go conspire in Washington,” Maduro said in a televised address.

The president said the diplomats, who were not publicly identified, had been meeting with student leaders at universities to fuel their anti-government rage.

The expulsion, however, is largely considered a retaliatory measure for recent comments made by officials in Washington who had condemned the Venezuelan government’s reactions to protests.

Maduro refused what he called US interference in Venezuelan affairs, especially after the Obama administration’s public endorsement of his contender Leopoldo Lopez, one of the main figures of the opposition movement.

The government issued an arrest warrant against Lopez after US officials in Washington warned of the serious consequences that might follow his detention.

The opposition leader was accused of inciting violence after three people were killed when months of protests culminated in a violent standoff on February 12 between protesters and security forces.

Thousands had responded to calls to take to the streets to protest worsening economic conditions and soaring crime rates.

Local media reported that violence broke out after gun-wielding individuals on motorbikes opened fire, killing at least two students.

In 2013, Venezuela’s inflation rate reached an all-time high of 56 percent, setting a record in the region. Deficiency in domestic production, coupled with strict controls over US dollar rates has also affected the imports-based market.

With Venezuela’s scarcity index pointing to more than 20 per cent (according to the Venezuelan National Bank), the black market has flourished.

Citizens have complained of a lack in basic amenities such as sugar, milk, and toilet paper, as well as some medicines, saying they have had to stand in long queues or buy overpriced products on the black market.

Public rage has also been pronounced against increasing murder rates. In 2012 alone over 21,000 homicide cases were reported in the country, according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory, one of the highest in the world.

Protests have not ceased since Wednesday, ending in violent confrontations nearly every night since then. Lopez and other opposition figures have called for more demonstrations and blamed government assailants for losses sustained.

Maduro’s government, however, maintained that their opponents bear the responsibility, and blamed corrupt, profit-seeking businessmen.

In his televised address, the president warned that attempts to topple his government would be met with an armed response. Maduro suspended railway and bus services, to help quell the protests, in addition to arresting opposition leaders.

Security forces raided Lopez’s house on Sunday, but he had already fled. Later he released a video message on Twitter calling for a Tuesday march to the justice ministry building, challenging the authorities to arrest him.

In turn, Maduro called on his supporters to rally in the same central square Lopez declared his starting point, raising concerns the capital could witness even more violence.

The US State Department said in a press release late last week that it had concerns over the “rising tension” and “violence” surrounding the February 12 events.

They urged political parties to refrain from violence and help restore calm, and asked Maduro’s government to release at least 19 detained protesters.

Experts have blamed the financial difficulties the country is facing on policies implemented by late president and socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2003 and inherited by his successor Maduro.

The US and Venezuela’s relationship has been troubled for years, especially under Chavez.

Last September, Maduro expelled three other US diplomats, also accusing them of conspiring with known anti-government figures.

In March 2013, Maduro expelled two other diplomats, hours before Chavez’s death was announced, saying they might have been responsible for his cancer.

No US ambassador has served in the Caracas diplomatic mission since 2010.

Source: Agencies