CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro announced Monday the expulsion of the top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela and two other embassy officials, alleging they conspired with "the extreme right" to sabotage the economy and power grid.
The U.S. Embassy rejected as unfounded the Venezuelan government's accusations of "a great psychological operation" against it.
Maduro made the announcement during a live TV appearance and said Charge d'Affairs Kelly Keiderling and the two others had 48 hours to leave the country.
"Out of Venezuela," the leftist leader shouted, then added in English: "Yankees go home!"
Maduro said a group of embassy officials that his government had been following for months was "dedicated to meeting with the Venezuelan extreme right, to financing it and feeding its actions to sabotage the electrical system and the Venezuela economy."
"I have proof here in my hands," he said, though he did not offer any details on the diplomats' alleged transgressions.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua later said on state TV that a protest note had been sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with proof of "a great psychological operation" by the American diplomats to "destabilize" Venezuela.
He said the expelled Americans had met with opposition and labor leaders in the southeastern state of Bolivar and with the opposition governor of Amazonas state, Liborio Guarulla. Bolivar is home to troubled state-owned foundries and Venezuela's main hydroelectric plant, while bordering Amazonas is one of just three opposition-governed states.
Expelled with Keiderling, the top embassy official in the absence of an ambassador, were consular officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who works in the embassy's political section.
State TV showed photographs and video of the three in Bolivar and Amazonas, including visiting offices of Sumate, an electoral-monitoring group that helped organize a failed 2004 recall vote against Maduro's predecessor and political mentor, the late Hugo Chavez. Jaua accused them of working with Sumate on "the idea" of not recognizing the results of Dec. 8 national elections for mayors and city councils.
"We completely reject the Venezuelan government's allegations of U.S. government involvement in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuela government," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
It said the recent trip by Keiderling, Moo and Hoffman consisted of "normal diplomatic engagement," adding: "We maintain regular contacts across the Venezuelan political spectrum, including the ruling party."
Venezuela's economy looks increasingly troubled ahead of the Dec. 8 elections. Annual inflation is at more than 45 percent and the government is running short of foreign currency.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, in a tweet, called Monday's expulsions "pure smoke to mask that (Maduro) can't manage the country." He claims Maduro was only able to prevail over him in a close April 14 election through electoral fraud.
The U.S. Republican congressman Marco Rubio of Florida said he was not surprised by the expulsions and predicted looming chaos for Venezuela that would be "sad" for its people.
The oil-rich OPEC member country has been plagued by worsening power outages since 2010. The opposition blames neglect and poor maintenance, while alleging mismanagement and corruption at struggling state-owned aluminum, iron and bauxite foundries in Bolivar.
Maduro blames sabotage by the "extreme right" for the blackouts and food shortages, but has provided no evidence. Like Chavez, he has a history of making unsubstantiated accusations against the United States and his political opponents.
Last week, Maduro said he had canceled a planned trip to New York to address the U.N. General Assembly due to an unspecified U.S. plot.
Since his election, Maduro has claimed five attempts to assassinate him have been foiled. In no instance did he provide evidence.
Venezuela and the United States have been without ambassadors since 2010, when Chavez refused to accept a newly named U.S. ambassador.
The last time Venezuela expelled U.S. diplomats was on March 5, when it ejected two military attaches for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation. That move came several hours before Maduro announced that Chavez had died of cancer.
Chavez governed Venezuela for 14 years, solidifying control of all branches of government as he won solid backing from the poor with generous social spending and blamed the United States for an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow him in 2002.
In recent years, however, Venezuela's woes have been compounded by corruption, rampant violent crime, worsening power outages and increasing shortages of foods and medicines.
At the same time, Maduro's government has been accused by international human rights and press freedom groups of cracking down on free speech and independent media political activity.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.
NEW YORK (AP) — From New York's Liberty Island to Alaska's Denali National Park, the U.S. government closed its doors as a bitter budget fight idled hundreds of thousands of federal workers and halted all but the most critical government services for the first time in nearly two decades.
A midnight deadline to avert a shutdown passed amid Congressional bickering, casting in doubt Americans' ability to get government services ranging from federally-backed home loans to supplemental food assistance for children and pregnant women.
For many employees of the federal government, Tuesday's shutdown meant no more paychecks as they were forced onto unpaid furloughs. For those still working, it meant delays in getting paid.
Park Ranger and father-to-be Darquez Smith said he already lives paycheck-to-paycheck while putting himself through college.
"I've got a lot on my plate right now — tuition, my daughter, bills," said Smith, 23, a ranger at Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Ohio. "I'm just confused and waiting just like everyone else."
The impact of the shutdown was mixed — immediate and far-reaching for some, annoying but minimal for others.
In Colorado, where flooding killed eight people earlier this month, emergency funds to help rebuild homes and businesses continued to flow — but federal worker furloughs were expected to slow it down.
National Guard soldiers rebuilding washed-out roads would apparently be paid on time — along with the rest of the country's active-duty personnel — under a bill passed hours before the shutdown. Existing Social Security and Medicare benefits, veterans' services and mail delivery were also unaffected.
Other agencies were harder hit — nearly 3,000 Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors were furloughed along with most of the National Transportation Safety Board's employees, including accident investigators who respond to air crashes, train collisions, pipeline explosions and other accidents.
Almost all of NASA shut down, except for Mission Control in Houston, and national parks closed along with the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo. Even the zoo's popular panda cam went dark, shut off for the first time since a cub was born there Aug. 23.
As the shutdown loomed Monday, visitors to popular parks made their frustration with elected officials clear.
"There is no good thing going to come out of it," said Chris Fahl, a tourist from Roanoke, Ind., visiting the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in Hodgenville, Ky. "Taxpayers are just going to be more overburdened."
Emily Enfinger, visiting the Statue of Liberty, said politicians need to find a way to work together.
"They should be willing to compromise, both sides, and it discourages me that they don't seem to be able to do that," she said. "They're not doing their job as far as I'm concerned."
Joe Wentz, a retired federal employee from Lebanon, Va., visiting San Francisco with his wife, bought tickets to visit Alcatraz on Thursday — if it's open.
Wentz said he's frustrated that some politicians are using the budget to push changes in the Affordable Care Act.
"We've been disgusted a long time that they're not working together," he said.
The shutdown was strangely captivating to Marlena Knight, an Australian native visiting Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. She was confounded that the impasse focused on the nation's health care system — an indispensable service in her home country.
"We can't imagine not having a national health system," she said. "I just can't believe that this country can shut down over something like a national health system. Totally bizarre, as an Australian, but fascinating."
It turns out an institution as massive as the federal government takes some time to grind to a total halt: Many federal workers were being permitted to come in Tuesday to change voicemail messages or fill out time cards. But after that, they were under strict orders to do no work, even check their email.
With no telling how long the budget standoff will last, even programs not immediately affected could run out of cash.
Barbara Haxton, executive director of the Ohio Head Start Association, said its preschool learning programs would be in jeopardy if a shutdown lasted more than two weeks. March's automatic budget cuts meant nearly 3,000 children lost access to services and there could be dire consequences if the budget standoff drags on.
"It's not as though this is a throwaway service. These are the poorest of the poor children," Haxton said. "And our Congressman still gets his paycheck. His pay doesn't stop and his health insurance doesn't stop."
Associated Press reporters Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., Terence Chea in San Francisco and Amanda Lee Myers in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) - Officials say the Smithsonian's National Zoo panda cam and all other live animal cameras will go dark in the event of a government shutdown. The zoo will be closed to visitors as well.
The zoo tweeted Monday that "None of our live animal cams will be broadcast." Officials say this includes the panda cam, which has been popular since the birth of a cub on Aug. 23.
The zoo tweeted: "The cams (incl. the panda cams) require federal resources, especially staff, to run. They have not been deemed essential ..."
On its website, the zoo said all programming and events will be cancelled, and all vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle paths will be closed.
Officials said a shutdown would not affect the feeding and care of the animals.