(Update: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday the U.S. has received no formal notification that U.S. officials are to be expelled, and said the Venezuelan government’s claim “that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false.”)
(CNSNews.com) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Sunday he was expelling three U.S. consular officials, as his left-wing government accused the U.S. government of “lying” about tensions in the Latin American country.
In a television broadcast, he accused the three unnamed U.S. Embassy officials of holding meetings with students involved in an anti-government protest movement, saying intelligence agents had tracked them over the past two months.
After three people died during clashes last week, Maduro accused opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez of inciting violence in a bid to overthrow his government. A warrant of arrest has been issued for Lopez, who in a statement from hiding on Sunday denied any wrongdoing.
In the statement posted online, Lopez called for a peaceful protest march on the Justice Ministry in Caracas on Tuesday, and challenged the authorities to arrest him then.
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement on Saturday expressing concern about the tensions, reports of arrests of scores of protestors, and the arrest warrant for Lopez.
“These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully,” he said.
“We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protestors,” Kerry said. “We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.”
“Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are universal human rights. They are essential to a functioning democracy, and the Venezuelan government has an obligation to protect these fundamental freedoms and the safety of its citizens.”
The foreign ministry – known in Venezuela as the “ministry for popular power for foreign relations of the Bolivarian Republic” – hit back with a statement read out on the pro-government Telesur network, calling Kerry’s statement “a maneuver by Washington to promote and legitimize the attempts to destabilize the Venezuelan democracy, unleashed by violent groups in recent days.”
“The Obama administration lies when [Kerry] calls into question the validity of human rights and democratic guarantees in our country,” it said. “The U.S. government lies when it denounces the arrest of peaceful anti-government protestors.”
“The Venezuelan state has acted, and continue[s] to do so, against the violent actions of small groups of [the] extreme right that dangerously conspire against democratic freedoms.”
These groups were acting against fellow citizens’ peaceful exercise of their rights, and against public and private property, through acts of vandalism punishable by law, the ministry charged.
There have been conflicting accounts of the deaths of three people at the end of a large protest rally in the capital on Wednesday. The Associated Press reported that “violence erupted when unidentified attackers arrived on motorcycles and opened fire on the opposition protesters,” two of whom were killed.
Also killed was an activist in one of the “Chavista” (named for the late President Hugo Chavez) groups known as “colectivos,” or collectives.
Venezuela’s attorney-general, Luisa Ortega Diaz, was quoted as saying the violence had been planned by “fascists” – a label used by Chavistas to smear opponents on the right.
The U.S. government has denied accusations that it is plotting with opposition groups against Maduro, much as it denied similar allegations over many years when Chavez ruled Venezuela.
Anti-government groups are calling for Maduro’s “exit,” protesting economic difficulties, crime, inflation running at nearly 60 percent, human rights abuses and police brutality.