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The U.S. has been raising alarms about the escalating political crisis in Venezuela. There's little Washington has actually been able to do, other than criticize the jailing of opposition figures or the rising death toll. At least 12 people have died since anti-government protests started earlier this month. The Obama administration had been trying to improve relations with Venezuela, but the new president there, like the late Hugo Chavez before him, tends to blame the U.S. for the country's problems.

As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the two nations haven't even exchanged ambassadors in recent years.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Nicolas Maduro says he wants to send an ambassador to Washington to better explain what's happening in his country. But just recently he expelled three U.S. diplomats, accusing them of plotting against his government. And Secretary of State John Kerry is sounding frustrated about that. He tells MSNBC he has tried in the past year reaching out to Maduro's administration.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: We're prepared to have a change in relationship. This tension between our countries has gone on for too long in our view. But we're not going to sit around and be blamed for things we've never done, and see our diplomats declared persona non grata and sent out of the country for things they didn't do.

KELEMEN: This week's his State Department retaliated by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats. So relations at this point remain in a slump, says Harold Trinkunas the director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

HAROLD TRINKUNAS: The U.S. was prepared to take a bit of a risk with the new government, to try to see if there was a possibility of having a more productive relationship with them. But that, you know, quickly fell apart.

KELEMEN: Now the two sides can't even talk rationally to each other, adds Carl Meacham who runs the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He puts the blame mainly on Maduro who, he says, uses the U.S. as a scapegoat.

CARL MEACHAM: He's accused the United States of being the puppet master and controlling what the opposition is doing. He accuses the U.S. of being behind alleged efforts to remove him from power. And these accusations are baseless.

KELEMEN: Meacham sees this as a sign of desperation for Maduro, who doesn't have the same populist appeal as Chavez did.

MEACHAM: He's desperate to redirect attention away from the troubles that he's having in Venezuela with the opposition, with constant protests in the streets of major cities, and with some questions that are starting to come up within his own coalition about his ability to really perform as a strong leader.

KELEMEN: So what can the U.S. do to have any influence? Trinkunas, of the Brookings Institution, says not much because relations are just too toxic.

TRINKUNAS: Anything the U.S. says and does will be used against it. And we have to keep that in mind, that I think the State Department does have an interest in a do no harm policy first and foremost. But it also has an interest upholding sort of the international norms associated with defense human rights and democracy in the hemisphere.

KELEMEN: And that means raising concerns about the crisis in Venezuela with regional organizations or with countries that have more influence than the U.S. does. Trinkunas says that won't be easy. The two countries with the most influence, China and Cuba, support Maduro. Two others, Brazil and Colombia, don't seem to be interested in getting more involved.

Former President Jimmy Carter, meantime, plans to visit Venezuela in the coming months. He's been urging the government and the opposition to reduce tensions. But his aides say he has no plans to mediate.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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