BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuela alleged on Wednesday that the U.S. ambassador to Colombia has plotted to destabilize President Nicolas Maduro's rule, adding to tensions between the two countries as the U.S. House approved a measure calling for sanctions on officials in the South American nation over human rights abuses.
The accusation was the latest in a barrage of attacks by Maduro's socialist government on the U.S., which Venezuelan leaders contend is behind three months of anti-government protests that have resulted in 42 deaths. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the allegation baseless and said such claims are meant to distract Venezuelans from their own government's failure to address grave economic and social problems.
Leaders of Venezuela's governing party presented what they said were emails written by ousted hard-line opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado to other opponents of Maduro. One message, dated March 23, says Kevin Whitaker, now the ambassador in Bogota but at the time the top U.S. State Department official for the Andean region, offered his support to the opposition, which has been seeking for months to force Maduro to step down.
"Kevin Whitaker reconfirms his support and indicated new steps," according to the purported Machado email, which was addressed to a former opposition lawmaker, Gustavo Tarre. "We have a stronger checkbook than the regime to break the international security ring they've constructed giving away all of the Venezuelans' money."
No information was given on how the apparently private emails were obtained, and no evidence was presented on their authenticity. At a news conference surrounded by Cabinet officials, Jorge Rodriguez, mayor of downtown Caracas, said only that the emails were part of a criminal investigation.
Machado strongly rejected the charge, calling it an attempt to intimidate her. She said she filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General's Office charging the evidence had been fabricated and was an incitement to hatred. "It's a tragedy what we have seen today," she told reporters.
Another email presented by Rodriguez discusses the need to "annihilate" Maduro. "We have to clean up this rubbish, starting at the top, taking advantage of the global climate provided by Ukraine and now Thailand," said the email dated May 23.
Machado told reporters she had no desire to see the president violently removed from office, just to see him step down. "Neither assassination, nor coup d'etat, your resignation for the good of Venezuela," she said of Maduro.
Machado is one of Maduro's fiercest adversaries and a divisive figure even within the Venezuelan opposition for having called for mass street protests in February just two months after the government prevailed in mayoral elections. After traveling to Washington in March to denounce Maduro's government at the Organization of American States, Venezuela's Congress barred from serving as a legislator and accused her of treason.
The accusation about Whitaker came as U.S. congressmen adopted on a voice vote a measure that would ban visas and freeze the assets of Venezuelan officials shown to have committed human rights abuses during the past three months of anti-government protests.
Similar legislation has passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but it's unclear when the full Senate might take it up.