Washington (AFP) - Tensions flared once again Wednesday between the United States and Venezuela as Donald Trump called for the release of a jailed foe of President Nicolas Maduro, who warned the new US leader not to provoke him.
Diplomatic rows have become somewhat commonplace over the past 20 years between Venezuela's leftist leaders and Washington, the "imperialist" power they love to hate. They have not traded ambassadors since 2010.
But with the Republican Trump only in office since January 20, any hope of some kind of breakthrough appeared to be quickly vanishing.
"Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/ @marcorubio) out of prison immediately," Trump tweeted.
The post included a picture of Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori and Florida Senator Marco Rubio at the White House. Trump's public schedule had only mentioned a dinner with Rubio.
Lopez, the founder of Popular Will, one of the most hardline of the parties opposing Maduro, is serving a 14-year prison term on charges of inciting unrest at anti-government protests that left 43 people dead in early 2014.
Ties had already been rattled on Monday, when the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Maduro's powerful Vice President Tareck El Aissami and a businessman, whom US authorities accuse of being involved in drug trafficking.
The US Treasury department froze the US assets of El Aissami and the businessman, Samark Jose Lopez Bello, and banned US nationals from doing business with them.
The Caracas government credits El Aissami with cracking down on drug trafficking while serving as interior minister. But the US Treasury says he oversaw shipments of cocaine from Venezuela to Mexico and the United States.
Maduro demanded a public apology and a diplomatic complaint was lodged. Then on Wednesday, Venezuela pulled the plug on CNN's Spanish-language channel, accusing it of spreading "propaganda."
Until Monday, Caracas had been somewhat cautious in its stance towards Trump's new administration. But that attitude has disappeared, and on Wednesday, Maduro stepped up the rhetoric.
Shortly before Trump sent the tweet about Lopez, Maduro had warned the US leader that he would respond with a firm hand to any action by Washington he deemed to be aggressive, though he said he did not want any "problems."
"If they attack us, we will not be silent. Venezuela will respond firmly. Those who tangle with us will get an appropriate response," Maduro said on state television.
- 'Instrument of war' -
Venezuela's dispute with CNN stems from its reporting about an alleged visa racket at the country's embassy in Iraq.
The story shown on CNN in Spanish on February 6 alleged that Venezuelan passports and visas had been sold at the Baghdad embassy to Arabs who the channel said may have been linked to terrorism.
The report named El Aissami as one of those behind the racket. The hardline former interior minister, 42, is next in line to Maduro and would take over if the opposition succeeded in its bid to oust the leader in a vote.
A severe economic crisis in Venezuela driven by falling prices for its crucial oil exports has contributed to food shortages and deep economic disarray, raising pressure to remove Maduro from power.
"CNN is an instrument of war," Maduro said on state television.
Within moments of the National Telecommunications Commission ordering "the immediate suspension of broadcasts by the news channel CNN in Spanish," the channel disappeared from screens.
CNN responded by saying the government was "denying Venezuelans news and information from our television network, which they have relied upon for 20 years."
It said its CNN in Spanish broadcasts would remain available in Venezuela online through its website and on its YouTube channel.
CNN International, the English-language channel of the US network, was not affected and remained on air.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said Wednesday that one of the channel's sources in the report, embassy employee Misael Lopez, was a criminal and the visa allegation were "based absolutely on falsehoods.
The channel had "launched an operation of psychological warfare, a war propaganda operation," she said.
In its statement, CNN said it stood by its reporting.