Jeny Figueredo, former chief of staff of the Venezuelan embassy, was expelled on Friday in a tit-for-tat exchange after an American naval attache was accused of spying and thrown out of Venezuela.

The US gave no reason for expelling Figueredo, other than to say that she was "the most appropriate choice".

"Why did they get rid of me? Because the embassy works to spread the policies ... of our president [Hugo Chavez]," she said on Monday.

"The White House doesn't want us, but the [North American] people do."

Chavez has promised sweeping reforms to end poverty in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter. He often accuses the Bush regime of attempting to overthrow him, but he continues to help poor US citizens by providing them with subsidised heating oil.

Respect

Last week, the Venezuelan government expanded its subsidised oil programme to include Vermont, taking to six the number of US states in which the needy receive fuel at a 40% discount.

Figueredo was given a hero's welcome at a news conference in central Caracas, where the crowds shouted praise and chanted: "Don't mess with Jeny, respect Venezuela."

Figueredo said: "I don't feel like a victim, I feel proud."