REPORTING FROM CARACAS, VENEZUELA, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- In his State of the Union speech before Venezuela's National Assembly on Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered the closing of his country's Miami consulate in retaliation, he said, for the Jan. 6 expulsion of Consul Livia Acosta, whom the U.S. declared persona non grata for allegedly discussing cyber attacks on U.S. government agencies.
However, in highly polarized Venezuela, Chavez opponents saw electoral politics at work in the consulate's shuttering.
Several critics said on their Twitter accounts Friday that the closing will make it harder, if not impossible, for the estimated 77,000 Venezuelans who reside in South Florida and who are registered to vote -- the majority of whom are thought to be Chavez opponents -- to cast their ballots in Venezuela's presidential election in October.
Although he described Acosta's expulsion as "hasty and abusive," Chavez told Assembly members that he would not play tit for tat.
"Allies have recommended that I expel U.S. diplomats who are in this country. I am not going to respond in such a way," Chavez said. "I know there are many functionaries here from that country who aren't conspiring."
The presidential campaign is heating up, and the primary election among opposition candidates to determine an opponent for Chavez will be held Feb. 12. One of the five candidates is Assembly member Maria Corinna Machado, who approached Chavez as he entered the congressional building to tell him that, next year, a woman would be wearing the presidential banner.
"If one of you wins the election, I will be the first one to recognize it," Chavez told Machado. "I ask the same of you."
Chavez also said that one of his principal accomplishments in 2011 was to "lower tensions" with neighboring Colombia, noting that he has had several meetings with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. "We are disposed to have good relations with all countries, including the United States."
He also said he has beaten cancer, that his health is good and that his puffy appearance is related to his jogging 40 minutes each day and regularly lifting 160-pound weights.
-- Mery Mogollon in Caracas and Chris Kraul in Bogota
Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrives at the National Assembly for his State of the Union address in Caracas on Jan. 13. Credit: Ariana Cubillos / Associated Press