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Venezuela: U.S. envoy meddling in referendum

Venezuela could expel a U.S. diplomat it suspects of interfering in its internal affairs by working against President Hugo Chavez's plan to run for reelection indefinitely, a senior official said Wednesday.
/ Source: Reuters

Venezuela could expel a U.S. diplomat it suspects of interfering in its internal affairs by working against President Hugo Chavez's plan to run for reelection indefinitely, a senior official said Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro told state television he had a document that appeared to be from an American at the embassy in Caracas referring to a plan to impede the anti-U.S. president winning a referendum Sunday.

"If it's true, we are going to declare this official from the U.S. Embassy persona non grata and eject him from the country because he would have been interfering in the internal matters of Venezuela," he said.

In the last days of a campaign with the "Yes" and "No" camps neck-and-neck, Chavez's government has become embroiled in diplomatic spats, accused the CNN network of instigating an assassination bid and created news by setting a date for Venezuela to adopt its own unique time zone.

Political analysts say the moves could be part of a strategy to burnish Chavez's nationalist credentials and distract voters from unpopular details in his raft of constitutional changes that must be passed in a referendum.

Chavez wants Venezuelans to vote to let him stay in power as long he keeps winning elections, one of a series of measures that includes letting him take full control of currency reserves and censor the media during political emergencies.

Early last year, Chavez expelled a U.S. naval attache he accused of spying. The United States retaliated by ejecting from Washington the Venezuelan ambassador's chief-of-staff.

The incident did not hurt bilateral commercial ties.

Key oil supplier
Despite Chavez's diatribes against U.S. imperialism, Venezuela has remained the No. 4 supplier of oil to the United States, its top customer.

In the past few years, the countries have sparred over everything from oil prices to free trade to democracy. But this year, the United States has studiously avoided being drawn into diplomatic disputes with the ally of Cuba and Iran.

In that vacuum, Chavez has focused on other targets.

Earlier Wednesday, he called for an investigation into the U.S.-based TV network CNN on suspicion it might have subliminally instigated an assassination attempt against him.

Hours later, the former paratrooper also broke off diplomatic ties with Colombia after calling its president a U.S. pawn for canceling his role as a mediator in talks with Colombian rebels aimed at freeing a large number of hostages.