CARACAS, Venezuela -- In a move that heightened tensions surrounding the health of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez, his vice president on Tuesday expelled the U.S. Embassy's military attache, accusing him of "proposing destabilizing plans" to members of Venezuelan armed forces.
Speaking at the Miraflores presidential palace after conferring with Cabinet ministers, 20 state governors and the military chiefs of staff, Vice President Nicolas Maduro accused attache David del Monaco of "illegal activity that mocks international conventions."
"He has had meetings in recent weeks with active military members that go against the military stability of Venezuela," Maduro said on national television. He added that the government has informed the U.SS. Embassy that Del Monaco has 24 hours to leave the country.
The charge comes a day after the Venezuelan government said Chavez's health had taken a turn for the worse due to a lung infection. Maduro's statements added to an increasingly radical tone that Chavistas have taken in accusing internal opposition figures -- and now the U.S. government -- of creating "disturbances" during Chavez’s health crisis.
Without giving specifics on what the U.S. official was allegedly planning, Maduro said the Venezuelan government is "on the trail" of other individuals "involved in this poisonous scenario" and accused the U.S. government of taking actions to weaken his country's economy and of promoting a "permanent rumor campaign."
Contacted by email, a U.S. Embassy spokesman had no immediate reaction to Maduro's expulsion order. The U.S. and Venezuela had previously expelled each other's ambassadors. The U.S. charge d’affaires in Caracas is James Derham.
Chavez has not been seen or heard in public since his most recent surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11, giving rise to rumors that he is permanently incapacitated or even brain-dead. Under a shroud of secrecy, he arrived back in his homeland on Feb. 18 and was admitted to a military hospital in Caracas.
Since his diagnosis of cancer in June 2011, Chavez has undergone four surgeries. Before leaving for Havana in December, he designated Maduro as his political successor. This week, he began undergoing another round of chemotherapy, which may have contributed to the lung infection.
Opposition figures have demanded an independent body be designated to verify that Chavez is alive and capable of governing. If not, they say, a new presidential election should be held within 30 days, as specified in the constitution.
Special correspondent Kraul reported from Bogota, Colombia. Mogollon, also a special correspondent, reported from Caracas.