CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro announced Monday the expulsion of the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and two other embassy officials, alleging they conspired with "the extreme right" to sabotage the economy and power grid.
The U.S. Embassy rejected as unfounded the Venezuelan government's accusations of "a great psychological operation" against it.
Maduro made the announcement during a live TV appearance and said Charge d'Affairs Kelly Keiderling and the two others had 48 hours to leave the country.
"Out of Venezuela," the leftist leader shouted, then added in English: "Yankees go home!"
Maduro said a group of embassy officials that his government had been following for months was "dedicated to meeting with the Venezuelan extreme right, to financing it and feeding its actions to sabotage the electrical system and the Venezuela economy."
"I have proof here in my hands," he said, though he did not offer any details on the diplomats' alleged transgressions.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua later said on state TV that a protest note had been sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with proof of "a great psychological operation" by the American diplomats to "destabilize" Venezuela.
He said the expelled Americans had met with opposition and labor leaders in the southeastern state of Bolivar and with the opposition governor of Amazonas state, Liborio Guarulla. Bolivar is home to troubled state-owned foundries and Venezuela's main hydroelectric plant, while bordering Amazonas is one of just three opposition-governed states.
Expelled with Keiderling, the top embassy official in the absence of an ambassador, were consular officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who works in the embassy's political section.
State TV showed photographs and video of the three in Bolivar and Amazonas, including visiting offices of Sumate, an electoral-monitoring group that helped organize a failed 2004 recall vote against Maduro's predecessor and political mentor, the late Hugo Chavez. Jaua accused them of working with Sumate on "the idea" of not recognizing the results of Dec. 8 national elections for mayors and city councils.
"We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of U.S. government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuela government," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
It said the recent trip by Keiderling, Moo and Hoffman consisted of "normal diplomatic engagement," adding: "We maintain regular contacts across the Venezuelan political spectrum, including the ruling party."
Venezuela's economy looks increasingly troubled ahead of the Dec. 8 elections. Annual inflation is at more than 45 percent and the government is running short of foreign currency.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, in a tweet, called Monday's expulsions "pure smoke to mask that (Maduro) can't manage the country." He claims Maduro was only able to prevail over him in a close April 14 election through electoral fraud.
The U.S. Republican congressman Marco Rubio of Florida said he was not surprised by the expulsions and predicted looming chaos for Venezuela that would be "sad" for its people.
The oil-rich OPEC member country has been plagued by worsening power outages since 2010. The opposition blames neglect and poor maintenance, while alleging mismanagement and corruption at struggling state-owned aluminum, iron and bauxite foundries in Bolivar.
Maduro blames sabotage by the "extreme right" for the blackouts and food shortages, but has provided no evidence. Like Chavez, he has a history of making unsubstantiated accusations against the United States and his political opponents.
Last week, Maduro said he had canceled a planned trip to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly due to an unspecified U.S. plot.
Since his election, Maduro has claimed five attempts to assassinate him have been foiled. In no instance did he provide evidence.
Venezuela and the United States have been without ambassadors since 2010, when Chavez refused to accept a newly named U.S. ambassador.
The last time Venezuela expelled U.S. diplomats was on March 5, when it ejected two military attaches for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation. That move came several hours before Maduro announced that Chavez had died of cancer.
Chavez governed Venezuela for 14 years, solidifying control of all branches of government as he won solid backing from the poor with generous social spending and blamed the United States for an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow him in 2002.
In recent years, however, Venezuela's woes have been compounded by corruption, rampant violent crime, worsening power outages and increasing shortages of foods and medicines.
At the same time, Maduro's government has been accused by international human rights and press freedom groups of cracking down on free speech and independent media political activity.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.