LUIS ALONSO LUGO
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States has expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in response to similar action against three U.S. consular officials in Caracas.
Venezuelan envoys First Secretary Ignacio Luis Cajal Avalos, First Secretary Victor Manuel Pisani Azpurua and Second Secretary Marcos Jose Garcia Figueredo, were given 48 hours to leave the U.S., State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats from Caracas on Feb. 17, saying they were supporting opposition plots to overthrow him.
White House spokesman Jay Carney took offense and said what is happening in Venezuela is an issue between Maduro and his people, not between Venezuela and the U.S.
"President Maduro needs to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people through meaningful dialogue with them, not through dialogue with the United States," Carney said. "Despite what the Venezuelan government would like to lead people to believe, this is not a U.S.-Venezuela issue. It is an issue between Venezuela and its people."
"We've been clear all along that the future of Venezuela is for the Venezuelan people to decide," Carney said.
The State Department's Psaki cited U.S. concerns about Venezuela's record on human rights and support for democracy, but said Washington remains open to a diplomatic relationship with Maduro. But she said Venezuela "needs to show seriousness" for the U.S. to move forward with that process.
"Recent actions, including expelling three of our diplomats, continue to make that difficult," Psaki said.
The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, though they have maintained embassies.
This month, Venezuelan opponents of Maduro have been staging countrywide protests that the government says have left at least 15 people dead and wounded about 150. Authorities have detained 579 people, of whom 45, including nine police officers and members of the National Guard, remain in custody.
Though violent protests have died down, the situation in Venezuela remains tense. Opposition protesters erected barricades to block traffic on major streets in Caracas and elsewhere Monday but there were no major clashes.
Hours after Washington's announcement, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua announced Maximilien Sanchez Arvelaiz as the country's new ambassador to the U.S. He had recently been Venezuela's envoy to Brazil.
Jaua said he proposed Sanchez as a sign of his willingness to engage in "the highest-level" relations with the United States, but added that Washington must halt what he considers to be U.S. "intervention toward Venezuela."
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.