Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's deteriorating health appears to have his government on edge, and his administration has turned to a familiar scapegoat: the United States.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced this afternoon that the government will expel a U.S. embassy official from the country for allegedly spying on its military and meeting with officers in an effort to destabilize the country at a time when Chávez is said to be suffering from his latest setback in his battle against cancer. For good measure, Maduro also repeated accusations that the United States was somehow behind Chávez's illness.
So far, not a whole lot is known about the exact allegations of espionage, or how Washington plans to respond. Maduro identified the American in question as an Air Force attache and said he'd have 24 hours "to pick up his bags and leave the country." Here's NPR's Two-Way with more on Maduro's "long, fiery speech" that he delivered on state TV today:
Maduro expanded little on the health of President Hugo Chávez, but he left little doubt that his condition was grave. He said that Chávez was living the most "difficult hours" since he went to Cuba for an operation in December. Maduro also repeated an accusation that Chávez himself made in 2011: That the United States was behind Chávez's cancer.
A spokesman for the U.S. embassy later confirmed the identity of the attache as David Delmonaco to the Associated Press, although Delmonaco's rank and role remain unclear. "I'm sure we will be formulating some sort of response from Washington," the embassy spokesman told the AP.
The news came less than a day after Chávez's communication minister made a somber television appearance last night to warn that the nation's 58-year-old socialist leader is suffering from a new "severe infection." Chávez hasn't been seen nor heard from—with the sole exception of a few official photos released in the middle of last month—since he underwent another round of surgery in Cuba at the end of last year for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area, according to Reuters. The communication minister, Ernesto Villegas, said that Chávez is currently in Caracas' military hospital, where his condition is "very delicate" and he was "standing by Christ and life, conscious of the difficulties he faces."