March 4, 2015 / 4:49 AM / 3 years ago

U.S.-Venezuela diplomacy row deepens over embassy staffing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Tuesday it would respond through diplomatic channels to Venezuela’s demand for a cut in U.S. Embassy staff in Caracas, but added that Caracas had drastically underestimated its own diplomatic presence in the United States.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a meeting with supporters at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, February 19, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Venezuela on Monday ordered the U.S. Embassy in Caracas to come up with a plan within 15 days to reduce staff to 17 from 100 amid the worst diplomatic flare-up between the two ideological foes since socialist President Nicolas Maduro was elected in 2013.

Maduro said there were 17 staffers at his country’s embassy in Washington, a figure disputed by the United States during a brief meeting on Monday between Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez and U.S. Charge d’Affaires Lee McClenny.

During the meeting, “we noted that the numbers the Venezuelan government has offered regarding its mission in the United States dramatically understate the number of Venezuelan diplomats in the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

“We will respond to the Venezuelan government via diplomatic channels after due consideration of their request,” Harf said, declining to say how many Venezuelan diplomats there were in the United States.

In addition to its embassy, Venezuela has eight consulates in the United States, as well as missions at the United Nations and Organization of American States, Harf said.

Venezuela had argued publicly and privately that the United States was trying to undermine the Maduro government, Harf added, a charge Washington has dismissed as “completely baseless.”

In an over four-hour broadcast on Tuesday night, Maduro did not shed light on developments with Washington and reiterated accusations the U.S. was conspiring to topple him.

He played an audio recording of an alleged New York-based coup-plotter, which he called “proof” there had been a putsch attempt earlier this year.

“Obama...: Abandon your interventionist plans in Venezuela,” Maduro boomed, demanding President Barack Obama hand over alleged subversives.

Maduro said he also has a video that directly implicates Washington but had decided to hold off from showing it for now.

Although the United States did endorse a short-lived coup against Chavez in 2002, opposition leaders say the new accusations are a ludicrous smokescreen designed to hide a recession, shortages of goods ranging from toilet paper to medicines, and the region’s steepest inflation.

South American bloc Unasur will send a delegation to Caracas on Friday, Maduro added. A trip by Brazilian, Colombian and Ecuadorian foreign ministers to meet with Maduro had been previously announced.

Reporting by David Storey and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney

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