BY GIRISH GUPTA AND BRIAN ELLSWORTH
(Reuters) – Venezuela ordered the expulsion of three U.S. diplomats on Monday on charges of recruiting university students to lead demonstrations that have left three dead in the OPEC nation’s most serious violence since President Nicolas Maduro’s election in April.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the three consular staff had used visa visits to universities as cover for promoting opposition protests by students, adding they had 48 hours to leave the country.
The demonstrations, which have energized the opposition but show few signs of ousting President Nicolas Maduro, continued on Monday with scattered protests in Caracas and various provincial cities.
“They have been visiting universities with the pretext of granting visas,” said Jaua, who often faced off against police during his own days as a student demonstrator.
“But that is a cover for making contacts with (student) leaders to offer them training and financing to create youth groups that generate violence,” he told reporters.
U.S. embassy officials were not immediately available to comment.
Venezuela has routinely
Maduro ousted three diplomats in October on charges of stirring up labor protests, and also expelled two others in 2013 on the day Chavez died of cancer.
Critics pass off such moves as theatrics used in times of national commotion to distract from more serious issues.
PROTESTS RUMBLE ON
Student demonstrators have promised to stay in the street until Maduro resigns, though the 51-year-old former bus driver has vowed not to cede even a “millimeter” of power.
He has urged his own supporters to drown out the protests with dance and song in the streets.
The Caracas protests have been limited to mostly upscale areas, and there has been no evidence that Venezuelans could join them en masse or that Maduro could be forced from power.
Small demonstrations early on Monday blocked the main avenues of several upscale neighborhoods of Caracas.
A group of students in Caracas were marching toward the headquarters of the state telecommunications agency, which has come under fire since the government’s decision last week to remove a Colombian station from cable television.
Demonstrators in the Andean city of San Cristobal set up protests burning tires and trash in the morning.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, wanted on charges including terrorism in relation to the recent violence, called for students to march with him to the center of Caracas on Tuesday. He said he would then hand himself in.
Citing security problems, the Andean Development Corporation suspended its annual marathon scheduled for this weekend in Caracas.
Venezuela’s highly traded global bonds, which fluctuate sharply on civil unrest or political tension, remained near 18-month lows, though trading in U.S. markets was generally light due to the Presidents Day holiday.