updated 2/3/2006 2:07:00 PM ET 2006-02-03T19:07:00

The United States on Friday order a Venezuelan diplomat to leave the United States after the government of President Hugo Chavez expelled a U.S. naval attache for alleged espionage.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Jeny Figueroa Frias, whom he identified as chief of staff to the Venezuelan ambassador, was declared persona non grata and given 72 hours to leave the United States.

On Thursday, Chavez had said that Venezuela was expelling naval attache John Correa for allegedly passing secret information from Venezuelan military officers to the Pentagon.

McCormack said the U.S. action was a direct response to Correa’s expulsion.

“We don’t like to get into tit-for-tat games with the Venezuelan government like this, but they initiated this and we were forced to respond,” he said.

Chavez likened to Hitler
The U.S. move came a day after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld likened Chavez to Adolf Hitler.

Asked during a National Press Club appearance about indications of a generally deteriorating relationship between Washington and parts of Latin America, Rumsfeld said he believes such a characterization “misses the mark.”

“We saw dictatorships there. And then we saw most of those countries, with the exception of Cuba, for the most part move towards democracies,” he said. “We also saw corruption in that part of the world. And corruption is something that is corrosive of democracy.”

The secretary acknowledged that “we’ve seen some populist leadership appealing to masses of people in those countries. And elections like Evo Morales in Bolivia take place that clearly are worrisome.”

Escalating hostilities
“I mean, we’ve got Chavez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money,” Rumsfeld added. “He’s a person who was elected legally — just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally — and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.”

There have been increasing signs of hostility between Washington and Caracas, and on Monday Chavez said Venezuela’s intelligence agencies have “infiltrated” a group of military officials from the U.S. Embassy who were allegedly involved in espionage.

Venezuelan authorities, including the vice president, have accused officials at the U.S. Embassy of involvement in a spying case in which Venezuelan naval officers allegedly passed sensitive information to the Pentagon.

It was not the first such charge by Chavez.

He has accused President Bush of backing efforts to overthrow his leftist government, and specifically has charged that the United States supported a short-lived coup in 2002, fomented a devastating strike in 2004 and expelled some American missionaries from Venezuela for alleged links to the CIA.

Washington has repeatedly rejected the allegations.

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