CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said passage of legislation to impose sanctions on officials could cause his country to shut down its diplomatic missions in the United States, but he praised the Obama administration's opposition to the bill and said it has led him to name a new top diplomat in Washington.
Maduro said Thursday that the measure, which has cleared the House of Representatives but faces a challenge in the Senate, could "lead to the point of not having an embassy or consulates in the United States."
"That's an extreme point that I want to avoid," he added during a televised event. "I want the best relations with the government of the United States, based on respect and permanent communications."
Maduro spoke in response to comments by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, who once again urged the U.S. Senate to vote against the measure. The bill calls for freezing any U.S. assets and denying visas to Venezuelan officials accused of violating human rights during a wave of protests that started in February.
Maduro said that he had read the remarks "with great attention" and said the "leap toward good sense" had led him to name a new top diplomat in Washington.
Even lukewarm praise from Venezuela's government is remarkable following an avalanche of denunciations. Maduro and his backers, following the path of former President Hugo Chavez, have repeatedly accused Washington of trying to topple him and have blamed the U.S. for stirring up the protests in which at least 42 people have died.
Just this week, pro-Maduro Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez announced that the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, was implicated in a plot to kill the president. Speaking at an event that also included first lady Cilia Flores and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, Rodriguez asked the U.S. government to clarify if it knew of Whitaker's alleged role or if he was acting on his own.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the allegation baseless.
Maduro said his new top diplomat in Washington would be former Venezuelan ambassador to Brazil Maximilien Sanchez Arvelaiz. In February, Maduro publicly named Sanchez Arvelaiz to fill the vacant ambassadorship in Washington, but U.S. officials have not acted on the proposal.
Venezuela has repeatedly expelled diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Caracas, accusing them of meddling in Venezuelan affairs. That has prompted retaliatory expulsions by Washington.
Chavez expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008 and withdrew approval of the U.S. nominee for the post in 2010. The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since then.
Maduro expelled two U.S. military attaches just hours before announcing Chavez's death in March 2013, quashing hopes of a rapprochement. Then in October, he expelled the U.S. charge d'affaires and two other diplomats in Caracas, accusing them of conspiring to sabotage the economy. He threw out three more U.S. diplomats in February.