Relations between the United States and Venezuela appeared all but collapsed Tuesday after the leftist government in Caracas set a 72-hour deadline for American diplomats to leave the country and the State Department said it was removing all U.S. Embassy staff.
Although the two nations did not formally sever diplomatic ties, the move signaled growing tensions as the Trump administration and its allies sought to oust Venezuela’s embattled leader, Nicolas Maduro, and install an opposition leader in his place.
In a statement, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said he had ordered all remaining U.S. diplomatic staff to leave Venezuela this week because their presence had “become a constraint on U.S. policy.”
The Maduro government said it had ordered U.S. diplomats to leave after negotiations to establish a diplomatic interests section — a kind of de facto embassy — had collapsed.
Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, said the Trump administration did not recognize Maduro as president and so his government could not hold talks or expel diplomats.
“We don’t believe the regime has the ability to tell us when to leave, and we don’t believe [it] is able to provide security” to U.S. diplomatic personnel, Abrams told reporters at the State Department.
In a series of interviews, Pompeo said he had ordered the withdrawal, in part, to protect U.S. diplomats.
“Their security is always paramount, and it’s just gotten very difficult,” Pompeo told a radio station in Houston.
“They may not think the Venezuelan authorities can guarantee their safety any longer,” said Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.
“They may fear a hostage situation … or looting … the general chaos,” he said.
The State Department announced on Jan. 24 that it had ordered dependents and nonessential embassy staff to leave Venezuela. Officials declined to say how many Americans stayed after that, but the number was small.
That was several days after the White House officially recognized Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as interim president.
Guaido declared himself president after claiming Maduro’s reelection was illegitimate. About 50 countries now have recognized Guaido as interim president.
The U.S. diplomatic withdrawal comes as Venezuela continues to slip into turmoil, battling its sixth day of widespread blackouts that have brought new suffering to a country already in crisis. Schools, banks and businesses were closed while hospitals and other critical facilities struggled to provide services.
Long lines of cars waited at gas stations as motorists sought fuel. Crowds pushed into sparsely supplied supermarkets searching for food that didn’t need refrigeration. Some Venezuelans were forced to collect water from a polluted canal.
Maduro accused U.S. agents and his political opponents of causing the blackouts with a cyber-attack. The Venezuelan attorney general’s office opened a criminal investigation into whether Guaido was responsible.
U.S. officials denied any involvement, blaming Maduro’s government for failing to keep the lights on through neglect and incompetence.
Guaido and the National Assembly that he heads — and that is ignored by Maduro — declared a “state of alarm” over the blackouts and other shortages. He called for more of the street protests that had galvanized the opposition.
"Nothing is normal in Venezuela, and we will not allow this tragedy to be considered normal, which is why we need this decree of a state of alarm," Guaido told the assembly.
The latest diplomatic clash follows dozens of trade and finance sanctions that Washington has imposed on Maduro’s government, adding to the country’s economic woes.
On Monday, the Treasury Department added a Moscow-based bank owned jointly by Russian and Venezuelan state-owned companies to the blacklist of firms and individuals barred from doing business with U.S. citizens.
Evrofinance Mosnarbank was helping Venezuela circumvent U.S. sanctions and move money for Maduro, the Treasury Department said.
Venezuela, which sits on the world’s largest known oil reserves, has become a priority cause for the Trump administration, in part because of Cuba’s widespread influence there.
“Nicolas Maduro promised Venezuelans a better life in a socialist paradise,” Pompeo said. “He delivered on the socialism part. ... The paradise part, not so much.”
Beyond sanctions and political isolation, the White House has few clear options. Officials may be waiting for sanctions imposed on Venezuela’s all-important petroleum company to bite.
Most Latin American countries support the Guaido-led opposition, and there appeared to be little appetite in the region for direct negotiations with Maduro.
“Negotiations in the Venezuelan context have an extremely bad name,” Cynthia Arnson, Latin America director at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank, testified to Congress last week.
“The question is whether in today's circumstances a true ‘hurting stalemate’ is at hand,” she added.