November 29, 2007
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela threatened Wednesday to expel a U.S. Embassy official for allegedly conspiring to defeat a referendum championed by President Hugo Chavez, accusing the diplomat of plotting to sway public opinion.
The allegation comes ahead of a fiercely contested referendum on reforms that would allow Chavez indefinite re-election and help him establish a socialist state in Venezuela. Sunday's vote has generated large pro- and anti-Chavez rallies and Chavez kept the rhetoric high on Wednesday by repeating his charge that Washington is plotting to kill him.
In Caracas, Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro showed state television a document that he claimed was written by the unnamed embassy official and was to have been sent to the CIA as part of a plan to help ensure that Venezuelans vote against the proposed constitutional overhaul.
"It's a script from the CIA to try to generate a block of opinion among Venezuelans that would give a sure victory to the 'No' vote," said Maduro. "We will investigate and if it's that way, we'll remove this person from here as a persona non grata."
He did not provide more details of the alleged plot.
A spokesman for the U.S. embassy, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said he was unaware of the document.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Rob McInturff said officials there were looking into the reports.
Chavez, an ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has had a friction-filled relationship with Washington. The Venezuelan leader accuses the U.S. of supporting a 2002 coup that ousted him from office for two days, while U.S. officials call Chavez threat to the region's stability.
In February 2006, Venezuela expelled naval attache John Correa for allegedly passing secret information from Venezuelan military officers to the Pentagon.
On Tuesday, Chavez accused the CNN news network of "inciting" an assassination attempt against him. On Wednesday, Chavez said Washington is also seeking to kill him - a claim he has made in the past.
"Before the world, I accuse the imperialist government of the United States of promoting my assassination," Chavez told supporters in the southwestern city of Merida. "If anything should happen to me, the president of the United States will be responsible for my death."
U.S. officials have in the past denied they are plotting to assassinate Chavez.
In Sunday's referendum, Venezuelans will vote on proposed changes to 69 amendments of the nation's 1999 constitution. If approved, the revisions would allow Chavez indefinite re-election, create forms of communal property and further his plans to establish socialism in Venezuela.
On Wednesday, hundreds of stone-throwing students clashed with police and the Venezuelan National Guard in a protest against the constitutional overhaul. Security forces responded with water cannons and tear gas.
At least 600 students from the private Metropolitan University took part in disturbances that lasted more than four hours.
"We're doing this because we're sick of Chavez, sick of his government, sick of the way he governs," said Roberto, who covered his face, leaving only his eyes visible. He gave only his first name because he feared reprisals from the security forces.
On Monday, a man was shot to death after he tried to cross a protest, near the city of Valencia. Chavez blamed violent elements within the opposition for the killing.