President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday expelled the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and his deputy for allegedly conspiring against his government and trying to sabotage the country's recent presidential election.
"The empire doesn't dominate us here," Maduro said in a televised address, giving charge d'affaires Todd Robinson and his deputy Brian Naranjo 48 hours to leave the country. "We've had enough of your conspiring."
Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have mounted following Maduro's victory in presidential elections on Sunday, a vote the White House has branded a "sham."
Maduro said in his speech that Robinson and Naranjo, whom he referred to as the head of the CIA in Venezuela, both personally pressured several anti-government presidential aspirants not to compete in the race. Most opposition parties decided to boycott after officials blocked their most popular leaders from competing.
Maduro also accused the Trump administration, which toughened financial sanctions on his government Monday, of seeking to escalate "aggressions" against the Venezuelan people.
"The dominant and decisive reason why the opposition progressively withdrew from the elections was the decision by the extremist U.S. government to not validate or legitimize a presidential election that they knew fully was going to be won in any scenario by the candidate of Nicolas Maduro," the president said.
There was no immediate reaction from Robinson or the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.
In his long career, Robinson, a career diplomat, has worked in Colombia, Bolivia, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. He earned a reputation for speaking out as ambassador to Guatemala and several times faced calls for his expulsion.
He's been similarly provocative in his short stay in Caracas.
Days after landing in Caracas last December, he posed for pictures next to a statue of independence hero Simon Bolivar in a pro-government plaza and called Maduro's constitutional assembly "illegitimate."
He's also made several forceful calls for the release of U.S. citizen Joshua Holt, who has been jailed for more than two years, without a trial, on weapons charges. Last week, he rushed with cameras in tow to the foreign ministry to demand information about Holt after the Utah native appeared in a video from jail saying his life had been threatened during what the U.S. embassy deemed a prison "riot."
Robinson said nobody in the Venezuelan government would met with him, but socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello denied the snub, accusing him of staging a "show"
But despite the frequent clashes, Maduro until now seemed little inclined to declare Robinson persona non grata as he and his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, have done several times before to U.S. diplomats, perhaps fearing that such a move would push Trump to impose long-threatened oil sanctions on Venezuela.
Instead, last month, he welcomed Robinson to the presidential palace for a private meeting with visiting Senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat, and dispatched a trusted aide, Delcy Rodriguez, the head of the constitutional assembly, to meet with Robinson at his residence.
Venezuela and the U.S. haven't exchanged ambassadors since 2010, so Robinson, while preserving his ambassadorial rank, was serving as chief of mission at the hilltop embassy in Caracas. Naranjo, his deputy, is one of the most senior State Department officials working on Venezuela, having served previously in Caracas when Chavez first ran for president in 1998.
Patrick Duddy, the last U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, who himself was briefly expelled by Chavez in 2008, said that the U.S. is not alone in rejecting Maduro's election as illegitimate and harshly criticizing the government for destroying the economy.
"They're looking to blame someone," said Duddy, now director of Duke University's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. "As it has so often been in the past, the target of their efforts is the United States."