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As Maduro clashes with opposition, Washington engages in ‘careful little dance’ with Venezuela

Venezuelan nationals living in Peru protest against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s second term on Thursday outside the Venezuelan Embassy in Lima. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)

On Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated for another, much-disputed six-year term even as his country grapples with a massive humanitarian disaster that has prompted millions to flee.

Washington responded to Maduro’s inauguration by talking a tough game: U.S. officials have called Maduro illegitimate and a dictator. Vice President Pence said this week that the Venezuelan leader’s swearing-in was “a sham.”

And on Saturday, a day after the head of the country’s opposition-run National Assembly, Juan Guiado, announced that he was ready and willing to stand in as a temporary president of the country, State Department spokesman Robert Palladino offered Washington’s support to the legislative body.

“It is time to begin the orderly transition to a new government,” Palladino said. “We support the National Assembly’s call for all Venezuelans to work together, peacefully, to restore constitutional government and build a better future.”

But Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the U.S. government is choosing its words deliberately and is engaged in a “careful little dance” in Venezuela. The United States may say that Maduro lacks a legitimate mandate, he said, but has stopped short of actually cutting off diplomatic relations with the country.

This is in part because the United States still receives a significant amount of oil from Venezuela, Ramsey said, meaning the United States “still has a certain economic interest in maintaining a presence in Caracas.” Fully cutting off diplomatic ties could also hinder the prospects of a politically negotiated solution, he added.

Last October, the United States imported 17.6 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum products from Venezuela, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

On Thursday, just after Maduro’s inauguration, Paraguay announced it would cut diplomatic ties with Venezuela and withdraw its diplomats from Caracas. And this week, 19 countries on the Organization of American States’ permanent council, including the United States, voted in favor of not recognizing Maduro’s new term. After Guiado announced he was willing to step in as interim president, Luis Almagro, president of the OAS, tweeted that he welcomed the move.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said the United States supports Guaido’s “courageous decision” to acknowledge that “Maduro does not legitimately hold the country’s presidency.” But again, Bolton stopped short of actually recognizing him as Venezuela’s interim president.

Maduro, for his part, has thus far refused to cave to the domestic and international pressure. Before his inauguration this week, the embattled president told reporters that Washington is planning a coup against him. “I tell our civilians and our military to be ready,” he said. “Our people will respond.”

And as The Washington Post reported this week, there is little optimism left among Venezuelans who have stayed in Caracas. “Everyone is desperate, and our situation is crazy,” Morelia Salazar, a 23-year-old, told The Post. “But Maduro wants to ignore it and stay."

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