(photo credit: AP [file])
Responding to Venezuela's expulsion of a US naval officer from Caracas, the State Department on Friday declared a senior Venezuelan diplomat persona non grata and gave her 72 hours to leave the United States.
Spokesman Sean McCormack said Jeny Figueredo Frias, the embassy chief of staff, has been ordered to leave.
On Thursday, President Hugo Chavez said Venezuela was expelling US naval attache John Correa for allegedly passing secret information from Venezuelan military officers to the Pentagon.
In Caracas, a senior Venezuelan Foreign Ministry official, Mari Pili Hernandez, criticized the expulsion of Figueredo. Whereas Correa had engaged in spying, she said, Figueredo had done nothing wrong.
"The situations are not at all comparable," she said.
The tit-for-tat expulsions marked another chapter in the steady deterioration in US-Venezuelan relations under Chavez, who has warned repeatedly that Washington has plans to invade Venezuela.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld drew a parallel between Chavez and Adolf Hitler.
"He's a person who was elected legally - just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally - and then consolidated power," Rumsfeld said in a National Press Club appearance.
State Department Sean McCormack did not repeat the comparison with Hitler on Friday but acknowledged US concern about the way Venezuela is governed.
"It has, we believe, been governed in a non-democratic way," McCormack said.
But, he said, the United States "stands ready to work with the Venezuelan government on a variety of different issues. We have a positive agenda for the hemisphere. We stand ready to work with them on counter-narcotics efforts."
McCormack said the US expulsion of the Venezuelan diplomat was a direct response to the action taken against Correa.
"They initiated this and we were forced to respond," he said. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros said Correa has returned to the United States.
The US Embassy in Caracas denied that Correa or any military attache colleague has done anything wrong.
Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Friday his government will present proof of the spying charges.
Rangel also hit back at Rumsfeld, calling President George W. Bush "the North American Hitler."
Chavez warned that if he uncovers any more evidence of alleged espionage, he will throw out the entire US military mission the next time. The embassy has 21 military personnel in Venezuela.
The Venezuelan leader arrived in Cuba Friday to meet his close ally Fidel Castro and accept UNESCO's 2005 International Jose Marti Prize.