The reluctance of defense officials to discuss even the position of U.S. military assets underscored the Pentagon’s desire to avoid escalating a potentially explosive situation in a region where the United States has limited military weight.
Some U.S. diplomats flew out of the country on commercial flights Friday as the U.S. Embassy in Caracas curtailed its operations, two days after the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader. Others remained at the embassy despite a Saturday departure deadline from Maduro, who had announced he would cut ties with the United States.
The dramatic events this week follow two years of political pressure and economic sanctions on the Maduro government. They also raised questions about whether embassy employees and their families would be caught in the tug of war.
While President Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, have suggested that the United States would consider “all options” in the mounting crisis, the military has not yet made any of the moves typically associated with an armed confrontation or the kind of militarized evacuation that has occurred during past conflicts.
Military officials said the White House had not issued any orders to help Americans depart or increase protection for those who remain. On Thursday, the State Department initiated the departure of certain embassy employees and asked others, deemed more central to the U.S. mission, to remain. It also advised American citizens in Venezuela — who number almost 50,000 — to leave while they can.
One defense official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, pushed back on any notion that additional U.S. military involvement is anticipated in Venezuela.
“Let me just throw cold water on that,” the official said. “I’m not seeing anything with any movement at this time.”
The crisis in Venezuela marks a rare moment of focus on Latin America for the Pentagon, which has been consumed by insurgent wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan for nearly two decades and is now seeking to reorient toward China.
In recent decades the Defense Department has deployed few ships and military units to the U.S. Southern Command, or Southcom, the military’s name for the region that includes Central and South America and the Caribbean. Much of the military activity that has occurred has been focused on counternarcotics efforts and disaster relief. Southcom maintains a network of facilities across the region that is much more modest than what the Pentagon has elsewhere.
Officials said the U.S. military presence in Venezuela itself is minimal, consisting mainly of less than 20 Marine guards at the embassy.
The Pentagon’s negligible role in Venezuela contrasts sharply with the situation in the 1960s and ’70s, when the oil-rich nation was a major U.S. military partner and an important customer for sophisticated U.S. weaponry including F-16 fighter jets, said Evan Ellis, an expert in U.S.-Latin America military ties at the U.S. Army War College.
That relationship deteriorated after the rise of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who saw Washington as an adversary and embraced close military ties with Russia. In more-recent years, Venezuela has bought billions of dollars of sophisticated military equipment from Russia, including fighter jets and attack helicopters.
The tensions in Venezuela may pose an early test for acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, who took leadership of the Pentagon this month after his predecessor, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, resigned, citing differences with Trump. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, had little military or foreign policy experience before joining the Pentagon in a senior role in 2017.
Defense officials said the State Department had not requested any steps to bolster security at the Caracas embassy, such as sending additional Marine embassy security guards or deploying Special Operations troops, or to help American citizens depart.
While the decision to evacuate diplomats is typically made by the senior diplomat in a foreign country in conjunction with officials in Washington, military personnel have played roles in the past in evacuating and protecting Americans overseas.
In 2006, the Pentagon deployed ships and Marine units to assist in a major noncombatant evacuation operation from Lebanon amid clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces. In 2014, a hefty contingent of combat Marines stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, helped stage an evacuation of diplomats there, via a large convoy of armed vehicles backed by American aircraft.
Embassies typically conduct planning exercises for emergency evacuations. In this case, military officials said they had a noncombatant evacuation plan for Venezuela “on the shelf” and had identified units that could assist in executing that plan if needed. But, they stressed, they did not expect to need to take such a step unless conditions changed significantly.
Military officials are also mindful of the escalatory effect that even positioning ships or other assets closer to Venezuela, to be on standby in the event of an emergency, could have. Officials said that as of Friday afternoon the Navy had not been asked to move ships near the coast of Venezuela. A hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, was dispatched to the Colombian port of Riohacha last fall to treat Venezuelan migrants but returned to the United States several weeks ago.
In a sign of the sensitivity surrounding deliberations about how to respond to the crisis, U.S. military officials have declined to comment about the operation in recent days, or even to offer routine information about what units and ships are in the region.
One U.S. official said that is the case in part because the National Security Council and State Department both want to be in charge of communications about the situation.
Navy officials at the Pentagon referred questions about what ships are in the Southcom region to the command’s headquarters in Florida, which in turn referred questions to the NSC. The U.S. military usually answers such questions.
“NSC is handling all queries on anything related to VEN at this time,” Army Col. Amanda Azubuike, a Southcom spokeswoman, said in an email.
For years, military leaders have emphasized the need to stay out of engagements in South America and noted the sensitivities in how U.S. interests are perceived in Venezuela.
“Anytime I open my mouth and utter the word ‘Venezuela,’ tomorrow morning there will be stories in the Caracas newspapers that will talk about how I’m planning the invasion of Venezuela,” said now-retired Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, the former commander of Southcom, during an April 2017 briefing at the Pentagon. “That is not true.”
The Pentagon has also sought to show it is still concerned about the region, especially as China and Russia expand their involvement in the Americas.
“Anything that we can do to show we are reliable is important,” Tidd said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February.
Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, who took over for Tidd in November, said in prepared congressional testimony ahead of his confirmation that he believed Venezuela’s instability was having a negative impact across the entire region and “can be best addressed through diplomatic efforts.” The Defense Department was providing some limited support to neighboring countries to help with the Venezuelan migration crisis, he said, citing the deployment of the USNS Comfort as one example.
“President Maduro is focused on undermining democracy and consolidating authority in his regime,” Faller said in prepared responses. “He is a vocal critic of the United States and attempts to challenge U.S. standing in the region with his rhetoric.”
Southcom on Friday declined to discuss how Faller has monitored events in Venezuela this week or prepared any U.S. response to the growing instability.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.