Venezuela Expels U.S. Officials as Chavez Struggles

(Corrects name of U.S. official in second paragraph.)

Venezuela expelled two U.S. officials accused of plotting against President Hugo Chavez’s government while the cancer-stricken leader nears his third month out of public view.

U.S. military attache David Delmonaco met Venezuelan military officials in a bid to destabilize the country and has 24 hours to leave, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in televised remarks today. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said afterward that a second U.S. official was declared persona non grata and that more expulsions will follow.

In an hour-long speech, Maduro also called for an investigation into a theory that Chavez’s enemies infected him with cancer and said he had evidence that opposition groups are sabotaging the nation’s power grid.

Today’s announcements come amid increasing speculation that Chavez is losing his battle with cancer and may not be able to continue as president, said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who specializes in Venezuela.

“This is consistent with what we’ve seen from Maduro in recent months,” Smilde said in a phone interview. “It’s a card that Chavez played and now Maduro is playing it too. Anytime you hear those kinds of accusations and conspiracy theories, you think it’s an attempt to divert attention.”

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment by Bloomberg News.

‘Severe’ Infection

Today’s comments show how Maduro could end up being more radical than Chavez as he attempts to prove his revolutionary credentials to Venezuelans, said Risa Grais-Targow, a political analyst at the Eurasia Group.

“They are clearly concerned with maintaining control and winning the new elections,” Grais-Targow said in a phone interview. “By blaming an outside aggressor, they gain room to take a tougher stance at home.”

Chavez’s breathing problems have worsened after he developed a second “severe” respiratory infection and Venezuela faces it’s most difficult hours since Chavez underwent surgery in Havana Dec. 11, Maduro said.

The government will give another health update on Chavez later today, Maduro said.

Four Surgeries

Chavez’s lung infection is the latest setback for the former paratrooper, who has undergone four cancer-related surgeries in Cuba since June 2011. Aside from photos released last month and messages posted to Chavez’s Twitter account on his return to Venezuela on Feb. 18, the president has not been seen in public since traveling to Havana for surgery Dec. 10.

Maduro called for a scientific investigation of Chavez’s cancer, saying he had no doubt Venezuela’s “historic enemies looked for a weak spot to damage Chavez’s health.”

The accusation echoes a theory espoused by Chavez in December 2011 when he hinted that the U.S. may be behind a “very strange” bout of cancer affecting several leaders aligned with him in South America.

On that occasion, Chavez called for a regional summit of leaders afflicted with cancer including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, and Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo.

Conspiracies

Maduro, who has been running the country in Chavez’s absence, also said the government has uncovered plots to sabotage the nation’s electricity grid after Venezuela suffered several power cuts last week.

Just before flying to Cuba for his fourth surgery in December, Chavez called on Venezuelans to unite behind Maduro as his successor if he couldn’t fulfill his term.

Under Venezuela’s constitution, if Chavez dies or steps down, an election must be held within 30 days. Chavez last year proclaimed himself to be healthy and ran a successful re- election campaign 14 years after first winning the presidency.

“We are praying with our souls for the health and life of our comandante president in these hours that are the most difficult we’ve experienced since the Dec. 11 operation,” Maduro said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Charlie Devereux in Caracas at cdevereux3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andre Soliani at asoliani@bloomberg.net

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