CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro faced increasing international pressure on Saturday, as European governments threatened to recognize his chief opponent as Venezuela’s leader unless a plan for new elections is announced within eight days.
The statements from Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Britain came as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed the United Nations to throw its support behind Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, who declared himself president on Wednesday.
The United States and most Latin American countries have recognized Guaidó as interim leader in recent days, after Maduro was sworn in for a second term following elections riddled with fraud. But Russia, China and others have defended Maduro. Guaidó’s actions have represented the most significant challenge yet to Maduro, whose socialist policies have contributed to an economic meltdown in this oil-rich country.
“After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply flawed election it is clear Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela,” Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign minister, tweeted Saturday.
Maduro responded to the U.S. recognition of Guaidó on Wednesday by severing relations and giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. Pompeo, however, declared that Maduro’s orders were no longer legitimate and that the embassy would remain open. As the deadline approached on Saturday, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas appeared to still be functioning. There was no sign of any unusual Venezuelan security presence at the massive, reinforced-concrete building in the Andean foothills.
A convoy of official vehicles rolled out of the embassy a day earlier, as the State Department withdrew non-emergency personnel and diplomats’ families from the country. More staff were expected to depart on Saturday and Sunday.
Diplomats and analysts said they could not recall a similar standoff involving U.S. diplomats. In his appearance Saturday at the U.N. Security Council, Pompeo warned the Venezuelan government again not to harm the American personnel in Caracas.
“I want to be 100 percent clear — President Trump and I fully expect that our diplomats will continue to receive protections provided under the Vienna Convention,” he said. “Do not test the United States on our resolve to protect our own people.”
Some of Europe’s most influential countries told Maduro on Saturday that if he did not call elections in eight days, they would recognize Guaidó as interim president. They included Germany, Britain, Spain, France and the Netherlands, which has a naval presence at its island territories off Venezuela’s coast.
European Union members met Saturday to discuss the Venezuela crisis and issued a statement calling for “the urgent holding of free, transparent and credible presidential elections.” The statement hinted that the entire 28-nation body could recognize Guaidó if Maduro didn’t announce elections soon, but didn’t specify a deadline. Still, the action was an escalation by the E.U., whose members have differed on how tough to be on the Venezuelan leader.
Guaidó celebrated the European statements, telling a rally in a south Caracas park: “We have the E.U. support. They took a firm step toward our fight for democracy.”
Maduro has labeled Guaidó’s actions as part of a coup attempt and insisted as recently as Friday that American diplomats had to depart the country within the 72-hour timetable. He has ordered Venezuelan diplomats to shut down his country’s embassy in Washington.
It was unclear Saturday how many personnel remained at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. A memo from the embassy obtained by The Washington Post in recent days said that 124 Americans, including 46 family members, were under its authority as of Thursday night. About 47, 500 U.S. citizens live in the country, most of them dual Venezuelan-American citizens.
Retired diplomats said that Maduro could respond to the U.S. defiance of his removal order in any number of ways -- including a military assault, which they said was unlikely. More probable, they said, was a siege of the facility, or an attack by pro-government mobs. Already, Maduro allies have threatened to cut off power to the facility.
Patrick Kennedy, the former U.S. undersecretary of state for management, said that the 95,000-square-foot embassy was built to withstand an assault by a mob —or worse. While rioters could perhaps scale the walls and burn vehicles or some of the outer buildings, the main structures “are built of solid concrete, and glass you can beat on, and doors you can beat on with sledgehammers,” he said. “They are not going to give.”
Kennedy said that, while he did not have inside knowledge of the current situation, an embassy that was facing a potential siege would probably have moved diplomats from their homes into the main building on the diplomatic compound. The Caracas embassy has stockpiles of food, water and diesel to run generators in case the power is cut.
Keeping the embassy open offers symbolic support to Guaido and could enable U.S. diplomats to keep in closer touch with Venezuelan officials and activists. Diplomats could probably survive there for months if necessary, according to former officials.
However, said Kennedy, eventually “you reach a tipping point, where the risk cannot be mitigated sufficiently in comparison to what we’re still getting out of it.”
Sheridan reported from Mexico City. Rachelle Krygier in Miami, Andreina Elena Aponte in Caracas, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels, Anthony Faiola in Rio de Janeiro and John Hudson and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.