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Washington pushes back at Venezuela's order to slash size of US Embassy staff in Caracas

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CARACAS, Venezuela — The United States on Tuesday pushed back against Venezuela's demand for a dramatic cut in the American diplomatic mission in Caracas.

During a rare meeting Monday with the top American diplomat in Caracas, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez gave the U.S. two weeks to come up with a plan to slash the size of its embassy from around 100 diplomats to 17.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had said over the weekend that he would seek parity between the number of U.S. diplomats in his country and Venezuelans in the United States. "They have 100 functionaries here. We have 17 there," told what was billed as "The Great Anti-Imperialist March."

On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. had noted in the meeting that Venezuela was wrong about the number of diplomats it has working in the U.S.

"The numbers the Venezuelan government has offered regarding the size of its mission in the United States dramatically understates the number of Venezuelan diplomats," she said.

In addition to its embassy in Washington, Venezuela has eight consulates in the U.S. A roster of Venezuelan functionaries on the State Department website lists 43 staffers: 19 diplomats in Washington and 24 in the other offices around the country.

Harf said no American diplomats had been ordered to leave Venezuela. The U.S. was only ordered to submit a plan within 15 days on how it would reduce staffing at the embassy in Caracas and would respond "after due consideration of their request," she said.

In the evening, the U.S. Embassy issued an advisory calling attention to the recent detention of several U.S. citizens in Venezuela, and warning that if arrested, Americans might be refused the right to speak with consular representatives. Venezuela detained four missionaries last week for reasons that remain unclear. They returned home to North Dakota Tuesday.

PHOTO: A woman using an umbrella during a drizzle walks by a mural representing the eyes of Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar that reads in Spanish "Gringo, respect!" in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 2, 2015. Venezuela’s government has given the U.S. two weeks to slash the size of its mission here to 17 diplomats as tensions between the two nations rise. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)
A woman using an umbrella during a drizzle walks by a mural representing the eyes of Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar that reads in Spanish "Gringo, respect!" in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 2, 2015. Venezuela’s government has given the U.S. two weeks to slash the size of its mission here to 17 diplomats as tensions between the two nations rise. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

The U.S. and this socialist-governed South American country have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010. Maduro regularly rails against the U.S., accusing it of meddling in his country's affairs, and he has taken to leading weekly chants of "Gringo, go home!" He said the most recent crackdown on opponents was a response to the "continual coup" the U.S. has been supporting against his government, a charge that the U.S. calls a red herring to distract from domestic problems.

On Tuesday night, Maduro announced that the group of South American nations known as UNASUR will send a delegation to the county on Friday for the purpose of promoting peace and dialogue.

On Tuesday morning, Venezuela published regulations removing the U.S. from a list of countries whose citizens can travel here without obtaining a visa. It's unclear how Americans will apply for their newly required tourist visas, which are expected to cost about $200.

The same official notice also formally banned entry by a list of conservative U.S. politicians, including former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

While few tourists choose Venezuela as their vacation spot, the visa restriction is likely to have wide-ranging implications, said Dan Hellinger, professor of International Relations at Webster University,

"It could notably decrease movement back and forth," he said. "That's going to be a hassle for the oil companies and related firms, exporters, and academics like me."


Associated Press writer Hannah Dreier reported this story in Caracas and Bradley Klapper reported from Washington.


Hannah Dreier on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier

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