WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration has expelled two Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation for Venezuela's expulsion of two U.S. military attaches.
Washington wants to repair ties with Venezuela after Hugo Chavez's death but has made little headway so far. Shortly before Chavez died last week, Venezuela expelled two U.S. Air Force attaches in Caracas for alleged espionage. The Obama administration waited until after Chavez's funeral on Friday to announce any reciprocal action.
The U.S. action comes as Venezuela prepares for an April election to choose a new leader.
On Saturday, junior Venezuelan diplomats Orlando Jose Montanez Olivares and Victor Camacaro Mata were ordered to return home, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday.
Montanez, an official at the embassy in Washington, and Camacaro, who served in Venezuela's New York consulate, left the United States on Sunday.
The U.S. expulsions amount to standard diplomatic retaliation.
The two countries haven't had ambassadors posted in each other's capitals since 2010. Chavez rejected the U.S. nominee at the time, accusing him of making disrespectful remarks about the Venezuelan government. Washington then revoked the visa of Venezuela's ambassador to the U.S.
Beyond the diplomatic tit-for-tat, Venezuelan officials have ratcheted up the anti-U.S. rhetoric of late, accusing Washington of responsibility for Chavez's cancer.
Administration officials declared themselves highly disappointed with Nicolas Maduro, the interim president and Chavez's desired successor, for a news conference he gave last week as the Venezuelan's health worsened. Comparing Chavez to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Maduro suggested that Chavez had been poisoned.
In recent months, as Chavez's health deteriorated, the administration sounded out Maduro in an attempt to improve relations that became badly strained during Chavez's 14 years in power.
Despite some positive feedback from a November telephone call with Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, American officials see little possibility of a sudden improvement in relations with Venezuela given its upcoming election. Maduro is running against opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Officially, Washington hasn't taken sides. It has focused its calls on the need for free and fair elections.