CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro said Tuesday that he would expel the two most senior diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, giving them 48 hours to leave the country, in a sharp escalation of bilateral tensions.
The statement by Maduro came two days after his reelection victory in a vote that was condemned as illegitimate by the United States and nations across the hemisphere. One of the two diplomats — the U.S. chief of mission, Todd Robinson — also had vigorously taken the Maduro government to task over the case of Joshua Holt, an American imprisoned in Venezuela.
Maduro also appeared to be responding to escalating U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and being branded a “dictator” by the Trump administration.
“The empire won’t dominate us here,” Maduro said Tuesday in a televised event at an electoral commission meeting. “Venezuela is free, sovereign and independent. And using my faculties as president of the republic, I’ve declared persona non grata and announce the removal in 48 hours of the charge d’affairs of the United States of America, Todd Robinson, and the chief of the political section, Brian Naranjo.”
Maduro accused Robinson and the U.S. Embassy of leading a “military, economic and political conspiracy” to overthrow him. “They’ve abused and violated international law,” he said.
Maduro’s government has routinely accused the U.S. Embassy of conspiring against him. The embassy has denied the charges.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said American officials had seen reports of the impending expulsions, and added, “We completely reject the false allegations that have made by the Maduro regime against our two colleagues.”
Naranjo, the deputy chief of mission at the embassy, had already been scheduled to leave Venezuela soon.
Robinson, however, is a more recent arrival. A career diplomat and Georgetown University graduate, Robinson previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala and deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. He has also served in the Dominican Republic, Italy, Vatican City and Colombia.
The two U.S. diplomats are the latest to become targets of official wrath in the years since Venezuela adopted a quasi-socialist system. In September 2008, Hugo Chávez — the leftist firebrand leader — expelled the then-U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, in an infamous speech in which he declared: “Go to hell, Yankees.” Venezuela and the U.S. government haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Chavez died in 2013, and Maduro is his chosen successor as president.
Robinson had issued statements recently denouncing Sunday’s election as a power grab by Maduro.
On May 15, Robinson told media outlets that “these elections aren’t free or fair.”
A day later, after a riot in a prison in which Holt is being held, Robinson showed up at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Caracas to demand information about his safety. Venezuelan authorities declined to receive him, and Robinson told news media outlets: “They didn’t want to talk to us. They said they had no information on what was happening.”
He complained that Venezuelan authorities said they wanted dialogue, but “when there are important subjects to handle, no one can speak to us.”
Holt, a 26-year-old Mormon missionary from Utah, was jailed in 2016 shortly after he traveled to Venezuela to get married. Police said he was stockpiling weapons and grenades, but he has insisted on his innocence.
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.