September 12, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela—President Hugo Chavez ordered the U.S. ambassador to leave Venezuela within 72 hours on Thursday, accusing the diplomat of conspiring against his government and saying he would also withdraw his own envoy from Washington immediately.
Chavez made the move in solidarity with Bolivia after his Andean ally expelled the U.S. diplomat there, accusing him of aiding violent protests. He said a new American ambassador will not be welcome in Caracas "until there's a U.S. government that respects the people of Latin America," suggesting that diplomatic relations will be scaled back until President Bush leaves the White House.
"They're trying to do here what they were doing in Bolivia," Chavez said, accusing Washington of trying to oust him.
"That's enough ... from you, Yankees," Chavez said, using an expletive. Waving his fists in the air, he added: "I hold the government of the United States responsible for being behind all the conspiracies against our nations!"
Holding up a watch to check the time, Chavez declared: "From this moment, the Yankee ambassador in Caracas has 72 hours to leave Venezuela!" He told his foreign minister to recall Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, "before they kick him out of there."
The U.S. Embassy said it was aware of Chavez's speech but had not received official notification. Embassy spokeswoman Robin Holzhauer said Ambassador Patrick Duddy is traveling in the United States this week.
The diplomatic spat brings relations between the two countries to a new low and raises questions about whether it could hurt trade. Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States, and Chavez also threatened to cut off crude shipments "if there's any aggression against Venezuela."
Chavez has threatened to stop selling oil to the United States on a number of occasions. But the U.S. is Venezuela's No. 1 oil client, and taking such an action would debilitate his government financially.
Duddy, who was posted in Venezuela just last year, irritated Chavez last month when he lamented that U.S. and Venezuelan officials have not been cooperating in fighting drug trafficking. Deteriorating relations were giving cocaine smugglers the upper hand, he said.
The socialist president responded by warning that Duddy could soon be "packing his bags."
Simmering tensions between Venezuela and the U.S. began heating up even more this week after two Russian strategic bombers were deployed to the country at Chavez's invitation.
"The presence of those Russian planes in Venezuela is a warning," Chavez said Thursday. "There's nothing better to keep yourself from being attacked than to dissuade."
Hours before announcing the ambassador's expulsion, Chavez said his government had detained a group of alleged conspirators in a plot to overthrow him. He accused the group of active and former military officers of trying to assassinate him with backing from the United States.
Chavez has repeatedly accused Washington of backing plots to have him killed or ousted -- and U.S. officials have repeatedly denied the allegations.
Associated Press writers Ian James and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.