Maduro Steps Up Venezuela Coup Claim as Americans Detained

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro stepped up his campaign against an “endless coup” he says exists against his government, ordering the U.S. to downsize its embassy in Caracas and detaining a U.S. pilot.

The U.S. will have 15 days to reduce its embassy staff to 17 people from 100, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said Monday at a news conference in Caracas. U.S. officials who remain in the South American country will be required to obtain approval for any meetings they hold in the country, Maduro said.

“They have 100 functionaries here, and we have 17 there,” Maduro said Saturday in a national address after a pro-government march in Caracas. “No! There have to be equal terms and respect between states.”

As his support falls, Maduro is aiming to shift attention away from economic problems at home and towards alleged U.S. inference, said Greg Weeks, a Latin America specialist who chairs the political science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Buffeted by plunging oil prices, Venezuela’s economy will contract 7 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, while inflation reached 69 percent in December, the fastest pace in the world.

Maduro has also cracked down on opposition politicians, arresting Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma last month, citing an “endless coup promoted from the U.S.”

The president’s approval rating has fallen to 22 percent, pollster Datanalisis said Jan. 2. It didn’t detail the margin of error, number of people surveyed or dates of the poll

“I have the proof here,” Maduro said as he clutched a folder he said contained evidence that embassy officials were working to destabilize the nation. “Videos, audio recordings and testimonies of the illegal, conspiratory activities of various functionaries of the U.S. government.”

Crying Wolf

Maduro said Saturday that he asked the Union of South American Nations to send its foreign ministers to Caracas so that he could present proof of U.S. intervention in Venezuela. He didn’t detail any of the evidence.

“I don’t think anyone believes the coup claims, in part because Maduro provides no evidence but also because years of such claims leave people numbed,” Weeks said Sunday in an e-mailed response to questions. “You can only cry wolf so many times before you’re largely ignored.”

The allegations against the U.S. are baseless and false, the State Department said Sunday in an e-mailed response to questions from Bloomberg News.

Maduro also said Saturday that U.S. citizens who travel to Venezuela will be required to obtain visas, and that some current and former U.S. officials will be banned from entering the country. They include former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, George Tenet, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is considering running for president.

Foreign Minister Rodriguez met Monday with Lee McClenny, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas in what she said was a “cordial” meeting.

Pilot Detained

Venezuelan authorities detained a U.S. pilot of Latino origin in the western Tachira state with “all kinds of documentation,” Maduro said without providing additional details.

“In the past several days, we’ve detected activity and captured several Americans involved in espionage,” the president said.

Four American missionaries detained by authorities in Venezuela last week have been freed and are on their way back to the U.S., North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, a Republican, said Saturday.

In February, the U.S. expanded visa restrictions on Venezuelan government officials believed to be complicit in human-rights abuses and public corruption. Maduro said Saturday that Venezuela wouldn’t accept any U.S. sanctions.

“The U.S. thinks it owns the world,” Maduro said. “They give their opinions all over. Something happens in Asia, and a spokesperson comes to speak out against it. What is that? Are we going to accept a world government?”

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