The United States is expelling a Venezuelan diplomat after the Caracas government Thursday ordered an American naval attaché to depart for alleged spying. The State Department said it acted reluctantly and still hopes to be able to work with Venezuelan authorities.
The State Department has declared a Venezuelan diplomat persona non grata and given her 72 hours to leave in retaliation for the expulsion a day earlier of a U.S. naval attaché on what officials here say are unjustified spy charges.
The Venezuelan diplomat, identified as Jeny Figueredo Frias, holds the rank of counselor and was serving as chief of staff to the Venezuelan ambassador.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack did not accuse Figueredo of any wrongdoing and did not explain why she was designated for expulsion other than to say she was the "most appropriate" choice.
McCormack said the United States does not like to engage in what he termed "tit-for-tat diplomatic games," but said that Venezuela initiated the action and U.S. officials were forced to respond.
On Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his government was expelling a U.S. Naval attaché, Commander John Correa, for allegedly passing secret military information from Venezuelan military officers to the Pentagon.
The State Department said the expulsion was not justified and that none of the military attaches at the U.S. embassy in Caracas was or is involved in inappropriate activities.
The twin expulsions underline the increasingly tense U.S. relationship with the government of Mr. Chavez, whom administration officials accuse of running Venezuela with an increasingly authoritarian hand.
Briefing reporters, spokesman McCormack said the United States has concerns about some Venezuelan activities in the Hemisphere and believes Mr. Chavez has governed in a non-democratic way. Yet he said the United States still stands ready to work with Venezuela on a number of issues, including fighting the regional drug trade.
"We're not going to stop speaking out about our concerns," he said. "That said, we will also pursue a course of working closely with the government of Venezuela where we can on issues of mutual concern. You pointed out the anti-narcotics agreement. This is certainly an area where we have in the past had excellent cooperation and a good relationship with the government of Venezuela, and we hope that kind of cooperation would continue in the future."
There was also a conciliatory note Friday from Caracas, where Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said that while relations with Washington were complicated and difficult, his government would not allow the dispute to get out of hand.
Mr. Chavez, a left-leaning populist with close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro, has accused the United States of among other things fomenting a recall campaign against him two years ago, and of backing a military uprising that briefly ousted him in 2002.
Washington has denied both assertions. The United States has recently moved to block foreign arms acquisitions by Mr. Chavez, but the two countries remain major trading partners, with Venezuela supplying about 15 percent of oil imported by the United States.