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In retaliation, US expels two Venezuelan diplomats

In direct response to Venezuela's expulsion of two U.S. military attaches from Caracas last week, the United States has expelled two Venezuelan diplomats.

The U.S. State Department informed Venezuela on Saturday that one of their officials in Washington and one in New York had been declared personae non gratae. The officials, Orlando Jose Montanez Olivares and Victor Camacaro Mata, have since departed the United States.

Despite leaving the door open for better relations with Venezuela, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland defended the U.S. actions.

"Around the world, when our people are thrown out unjustly, we're going to take reciprocal action," Nuland said at a daily press briefing. "And we need to do that to protect our own people."

Venezuela’s president of 14 years, Hugo Chavez, died last week, leaving the future of relations with the United States up in the air.

Chavez was a harsh critic of the United States, and used fiery anti-American rhetoric as a rallying cry.  

And just hours before announcing on Tuesday that Chavez had died, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the expulsion of the two U.S. diplomats, and accused the United States of being responsible for the cancer that took Chavez’s life.

Maduro, the late president’s hand-picked successor, on Monday registered to be a candidate in the April 14 vote to replace Chavez. He used the event to stage a campaign rally, surrounded by thousands of cheering, crying, music-playing supporters with him.

"We do hope for better relations with Venezuela. There is work that we would like to do together, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, economic and energy relations. But it's going to take a change of tone from Caracas," Nuland said.

In the short time since Chavez's death, the tone has remained unchanged, according to Nuland, who said that "in the day or days that followed, there was some pretty heated rhetoric coming in our direction. I think I called it at one point... a page from the old Chavista playbook that we were hoping was going to change."

One expelled official, Montanez, was second secretary at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the other, Camacaro, was Second Consul in at Consulate General of Venezuela in New York.

NBC News staff writer Kari Huus contributed to this report.