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Citing a 'military conspiracy' against him, Venezuela's President Maduro expels top U.S. diplomat

Citing a 'military conspiracy' against him, Venezuela's President Maduro expels top U.S. diplomat
The top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela, Chargé d'Affaires Todd Robinson, has been expelled along with his deputy. (Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press)

President Nicolas Maduro ordered the expulsion Tuesday of the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela, accusing him of being involved in a "military conspiracy" against this nation's socialist government.

It was the latest ratcheting up of tensions between the United States and Venezuela, which have been political adversaries for more than a decade.

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The expulsion order came as Maduro was officially ratified for a new presidential mandate after being declared the landslide winner of controversial national elections held Sunday.

The Trump administration denounced the balloting — conducted amid a boycott by much of the opposition — as a "sham" and slapped new economic sanctions on Venezuela, which has been mired in an economic crisis for years.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry denounced the latest sanctions as a "crime against humanity" that impedes "the rights and development of Venezuela."

Maduro declared the U.S. charge d'affaires, Todd Robinson, persona non grata and ordered him out of the country within 24 hours.

Robinson, a career diplomat who previously served as ambassador to Guatemala, is the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat here. Washington and Caracas have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Also ordered expelled on Monday was a second U.S. diplomat, Brian Naranjo.

In brief remarks in Spanish to the Venezuelan press, Robinson said he "energetically rejected" the allegations against him and Naranjo. He declined to further comment.

The Venezuelan president alleged that the two diplomats "combined" to pressure the opposition to not participate in Sunday's vote in a bid to undermine Maduro's anticipated triumph.

The Trump administration "completely rejects the false accusations" made against the two diplomats, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday. U.S. officials were examining reports of the expulsions, she said.

A day earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the balloting "process was choreographed by a regime too unpopular and afraid of its own people to risk free elections and open competition."

Maduro, who has headed the government here since 2013, ran against two minor opponents and won reelection with 68% of the vote. He is scheduled to start his next six-year term in January.

In recent years, Maduro and his allies have taken numerous steps to consolidate his hold on power. The supreme court, packed with Maduro supporters, steadily stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers, and the assembly was eventually replaced last year with a new legislature dominated by Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

The new sanctions against the country, imposed Monday through an executive order by President Trump, will make it illegal for U.S. citizens to buy up Venezuelan debt. Such purchases have helped Maduro keep his government afloat. The sanctions also restrict Venezuela's ability to liquidate its assets at bargain-basement prices.

Opposition boycott leaders in Venezuela declared Sunday's elections illegitimate and designed largely to provide a legal cover for Maduro's unpopular rule. Maduro has repeatedly rejected charges of repressing the opposition and accused his opponents of refusing to participate in democratic balloting.

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"They want to stigmatize me as a dictator, but I couldn't care less," Maduro told the nation in a televised address before Sunday's balloting.

In his expulsion order, Maduro vowed to produce evidence of U.S. meddling in Venezuelan economic, political and military affairs.

"Neither with conspiracies or with sanctions will you hold Venezuela back," Maduro said, in a message directed at Washington, reported the official Telesur news outlet.

The Venezuelan government has long argued that it was the target of a U.S.-sponsored "economic war" and destabilization campaign meant to install an administration more submissive to Washington. U.S. officials have denied any such effort and have assailed Maduro's rule as undemocratic and authoritarian.

Venezuela, one of the world's major oil producers, has long been battered by food shortages, lack of medical care, hyperinflation and an escalating poverty rate. The shortages have triggered widespread street protests, and hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have abandoned the country in recent years, seeking opportunities elsewhere.

The exodus has, in particular, put pressure on neighboring Colombia, where regional governments and hospitals are struggling to accommodate the Venezuelans crossing the border looking for work and food. Colombia also declined to recognize the results of Sunday's balloting, along with the European Union and some other Latin American countries.

Declining oil prices have been a key factor in the nation's economic meltdown. But critics also blame what they call the inept policies of the Maduro government. Maduro says Washington is largely responsible.

Maduro, 55, is a protege of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a longtime U.S. antagonist. Maduro served as acting president after Chavez's death in March 2013 and was elected president the following month. He narrowly defeated opposition challenger Henrique Capriles, former governor of Miranda state, who rejected the results, citing alleged irregularities.

Special correspondent Mogollon reported from Caracas and Times staff writer McDonnell from Mexico City. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.

Twitter: @PmcdonnellLAT

UPDATES:

5:40 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Todd Robinson.

5:05 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting on the expulsion of the diplomats and Venezuela's recent election.

This article was originally published at 11:40 a.m.

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