WASHINGTON, D.C. — The leader of Venezuela’s oil-rich petrocracy has been known to promote conspiracies of Western sabotage of everything from Caracas’ power grid to its toilet paper supply. But in recent days, President Nicolás Maduro has reached new heights of paranoia — expelling U.S. diplomats over charges that they’re threatening to destabilize the country.
Late Tuesday night, the State Department told three Venezuelan diplomats to leave the United States in response to Venezuela’s decision to boot the highest-ranking U.S. envoy there and two other U.S. officials. Earlier on Tuesday, Maduro explained that his order came after U.S. diplomats attempted to destabilize his country during meetings with “far-right” members of the Venezuelan opposition.
“While the government of the United States does not understand that it has to respect our country’s sovereignty, there will simply be no cordial relations nor cordial communication,” Maduro said from the government palace.
Caught off guard, the State Department responded angrily. “It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action,” State Department spokesman Peter Velasco said. “It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries and not a serious way for a country to conduct its foreign policy.”
Even for a handpicked successor to Hugo Chávez, Maduro is raising eyebrows with the frequency at which he doles out claims of sabotage and foreign meddling. “The announcement of conspiracies and assassination attempts followed by sharp diplomatic downturns didn’t begin with Nicolás Maduro,” said Patrick Duddy, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. “It seems, however, to be accelerating with President Maduro, and there may be a correlation with how badly things are going domestically.”
Since taking office, Maduro has made at least 11 accusations of alleged plots to assassinate the president or efforts to destabilize his government, according to CNN en Español. These allegations run the gamut.
Last month, the government attributed a scarcity of food and toilet paper to a U.S. “economic war” aided by “fascist” co-conspirators in the Venezuelan opposition. As a result, Maduro ordered the national guard to infiltrate a large toilet paper factory on Sept. 20 to check for irregularities in production.
That same month, more than half of Venezuela was left without power due to an electrical blackout. Even though the country’s strained power grid has lacked basic upkeep for years, Maduro blamed the opposition and conspiring capitalists. In September, he blamed a refinery explosion in August 2012 on the country’s enemies, including American embassy officials, waging a “war against the economy.”
Last week, he canceled his trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly meeting due to alleged plots to harm him. “The clan, the mafia of Otto Reich, and Roger Noriega once again had planned a crazy, terrible provocation that can’t be described in any other way,” Maduro said, a reference to two former U.S. officials.
Perhaps most famously, Maduro accused U.S. officials of plotting to destabilize Venezuela hours before he announced the end of Chávez’s losing battle with cancer.
The spate of accusations has led experts to look decisively toward the Dec. 8 nationwide municipal elections as evidence of Maduro’s erratic behavior. “Given the political contestation in Venezuela over the outcome of the presidential elections in April, these municipal elections are likely to be seen as a referendum on Maduro’s government,” Harold Trinkunas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Cable. “President Maduro may calculate that accusing the United States of fomenting plots against him still has value as a means to reinforce domestic support for his government.”
Duddy — the former ambassador who himself was ousted by Chávez in an epithet-filled speech in 2008 — said the economy can’t be ignored. “It’s important to note just how badly things are going domestically for Maduro,” he said. “Inflation is now running at about 45 percent. The dollar, on the parallel market, is trading at multiples of the official rate. Hundreds of percent higher. Violent crime in the country is extraordinarily high. Caracas may well be the most violent capital city anywhere in a country not at war.”
“The government is facing a very, very difficult domestic situation and is inclined to search for scapegoats,” he added.
Meanwhile, with respective embassies in Caracas and Washington gutted, the two nations are left without senior representation to engage in the protocol-obsessed world of international diplomacy. Though Maduro is now asking President Barack Obama to address his grievance, the United States is showing no signs of acquiescence.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki insists U.S. diplomats “were there conducting normal diplomatic engagement, as we’ve said in the past, and [that] should come as no surprise.”
In a press conference in Caracas before her 48-hour deadline to leave expired, U.S. Chargé d’affaires Kelly Keiderling denied any attempt in sabotage the government. “It is true. We met with Venezuelans,” she said. “These meetings with civil society can be with [the independent election monitoring group] Súmate, they can be with a group of women, with mothers who have lost children, or with an environmental group that wants to lobby for cleaning a park,” she said. “If we aren’t talking with these people, we aren’t doing our jobs.”
Hudson writes The Cable for Foreign Policy.
© 2013, Foreign Policy