CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Nicolas Maduro hasn’t wasted time consolidating power in the aftermath of his disputed victory in Venezuela’s presidential election. He has thrown out U.S. diplomats, arrested alleged military conspirators and cracked down on the nation’s last remaining critical major newspaper.
The socialist leader won a second six-year term as president of this crisis-wracked country Sunday despite widespread anger over shortages of food and medicine that have driven hundreds of thousands to leave Venezuela seeking a better life.
His leading challenger and many in the international community accused Maduro of orchestrating a “sham” election through tactics such as banning leading opposition candidates and buying votes by enticing the poor with the promise of a prize.
Maduro quickly struck back at his biggest critic, taking aim at the U.S. Embassy.
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In a speech accepting the election results, Maduro announced that he was ordering the top U.S. diplomat, charge d’affaires Todd Robinson, and his deputy, Brian Naranjo, to get out of Venezuela within 48 hours. Maduro accused them of bolstering the most powerful opposition politicians, who boycotted the election in protest.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the U.S. will respond reciprocally to the diplomats’ expulsion. Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump echoed the sentiment.
“This provocation will be met with a swift response,” Pence said in a tweet repeated by Trump. “We will continue to pressure Venezuela’s illegitimate regime until democracy is restored.”
The State Department announced late Wednesday that the charge d’affaires in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington and the deputy consul general at Venezuela’s consulate in Houston had been ordered to leave the U.S. within 48 hours.
Venezuela’s election officials say Maduro beat his nearest challenger, Henri Falcon, by roughly 46 points.
Human rights activists in Venezuela, meanwhile, said Maduro’s government arrested at least 11 military officers as suspects in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
There has been no sign of wavering support from the leadership of Venezuela’s military, which long has been the arbiter of Venezuela’s political disputes. On election day, top commanders went on state television to heap praise on what they described as a flawless vote across the nation.
Activists Alfredo Romero, executive director of the lawyers co-op Foro Penal, said on Twitter that military courts approved the arrests as voters went to the polls.
Authorities have not reported or commented on the arrests. So far this year, human rights activists estimate more than 120 soldiers have been arrested.
In a broad backlash following the election, a coalition of 14 countries throughout the Americas, including Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, pledged to scale back diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy decried the vote as failing to respect “minimal democratic standards.”
The Inter-American Development Bank announced it was suspending further loans to Venezuela for failing to make good on $88 million in debt payments. That deprives the cash-strapped country of a potentially important financing source. Venezuela’s debt with the bank totals $2 billion, bank officials said.
However, in at least one show of support, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Maduro late Tuesday to give his congratulations, joining China, Russia and Cuba in offering support. Turkish officials said Maduro and Erdogan “emphasized their determination to develop ties in all areas.”
Maduro’s government on Tuesday opened an investigation into the online publication of El Nacional, the biggest critical newspaper, saying it is suspected of breaching recently adopted laws against promoting hatred.
The National Telecommunications Commission had ordered the newspaper to stop publishing content on its website that attempts to upset peace among Venezuela’s residents. The newspaper was given 10 days to present its defense.
El Nacional’s editor, Miguel Henrique Otero, called the action “political retaliation,” saying the probe proves an intensifying “persecution of the country’s independent press.”