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U.S. diplomats hunker down in Venezuela amid standoff with Maduro

A U.S. flag flies outside the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 24.
A U.S. flag flies outside the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 24. (Fernando Llano/AP)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela hunkered down to await the consequences of disobeying an order by President Nicolás Maduro to exit the country by Saturday afternoon — an act of defiance that the socialist government has suggested could lead to electricity and gas cuts at the U.S. compound.

The State Department ordered the departure of a number of non-emergency employees and their families, while keeping others in place, following a decision by the Trump administration and a host of other nations on Wednesday to recognize Juan Guaidó, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as Venezuela’s rightful president. Guaidó on Wednesday declared Maduro a usurper for staging fraudulent elections last year and proclaimed himself the socialist nation’s rightful interim ruler.

A convoy of official vehicles with tinted windows sped away early Friday from the heavily fortified embassy compound under the watchful eyes of Venezuelan security forces. The State Department did not disclose how many officials were exiting the country, but in Washington, U.S. officials said there are no plans to completely close the embassy, indicating that some senior staff would remain against Maduro’s order to depart by around 4:17 p.m. local time on Saturday. 

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, while Nicolás Maduro broke relations with the United States. (Video: Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expected the rights of those diplomats who remain will be protected.

“It is literally a 24/7 moment-by-moment exercise to evaluate risk to the people who work for me in the State Department,” he said. “And we’ll get this right. We will make sure that we protect our folks on the ground and take all appropriate measures to ensure that they’re protected.”

At the same time, the United States and other nations sought to cut off the Maduro government’s already fragile sources of funding, including a move aimed at putting Citgo — the U.S.-based oil company wholly owned by Venezuela’s state energy giant — in the hands of Guaidó’s opposition. The Bank of England, meanwhile, declined to allow Maduro’s government to repatriate $1.2 billion worth of gold, Bloomberg News reported. 

President Trump on Jan. 24 said the U.S. is “very closely” monitoring the situation in Venezuela. (Video: The Washington Post)

In Washington, Pompeo announced Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, will be a special envoy to Venezuela. A prominent conservative, Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to charges related to the Iran-contra affair but was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, said he relished tackling the situation in Venezuela.

“This crisis in Venezuela is deep and difficult and dangerous,” he said, “and I can’t wait to get there.”

A U.S. Embassy staffer in Caracas who spoke on the condition of anonymity said some personnel had left the country on Friday using commercial flights, and others were slated to leave Saturday and Sunday. Some personnel — he could not say how many — would remain. 

The embassy had stockpiles of food and water, he said, but only because that is the norm in a country facing severe shortages of basic goods. Threats of cutting power and water, he said, were ironic. 

“It’s a sick joke, because those are the conditions that many Venezuelans have to live in every day,” he said. 

Perhaps sensing his slipping position, Maduro offered to personally meet with Guaidó, “whenever he wants, wherever he wants. If I have to climb [a mountain] at 3 a.m. to dialogue, I will do it.”  

The U.S. moves have left Maduro facing a delicate series of decisions on how to manage the presence of the U.S. personnel remaining in Caracas. At a Friday news conference, he repeated his demand they leave. “Let’s wait for the 72 hours,” to pass, he said.

He sought to personally blame President Trump for the showdown. 

“I love the United States,” he said. “I broke political and diplomatic relations with the government of Trump. But I did not break relations with the United States. If they want to buy oil, we’ll sell them oil. If they don’t, we’ll sell elsewhere.” 

Maduro said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “assured me of support for Venezuela, more wheat, more investment in the oil sector, more investment in gas, more investment in telecommunications and more investment in military investments.” On Friday, Reuters reported that roughly 400 Kremlin-linked forces were in Venezuela to aid in Maduro’s protection.

Bill Brownfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested three main options for Maduro on Saturday. 

Least likely, he said, was to order the military to force its way into the U.S. Embassy, provoking a direct confrontation with Washington. Slightly more probable, he said, is to quietly encourage pro-government supporters to do the work for him. 

Maduro “withdraws all security . . . they come over the gates. What they probably would do is to destroy, or at least to strip, every one of the outer buildings,” he said. “I doubt a mob could get into the building itself.” 

Most likely, though, is that Maduro “settles down for a siege” of the compound and doesn’t allow anyone in or out “until they are ready to go home.” 

A memo from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas obtained by The Washington Post warned that the “political and security situations are unpredictable and constantly changing” for the 124 Americans, including 46 family members, under its authority as of Thursday night. The memo also noted an estimated 47,500 U.S. citizens — the majority of whom are dual-nationals — are in the country.

 In Caracas, the opposition began outlining its plan to undermine Maduro’s authority.  

Speaking to a cheering throng in Plaza Bolivar, Guaidó said the opposition was already preparing names to replace the board at Citgo — a move that could lead Venezuela to halt oil sales to the United States, as well as payments on company bonds. That, in turn, could trigger attempted seizures by bondholders and the Russians, who hold a lien on 49 percent of the company. 

The loyalties of the military remain key to Maduro’s ability to survive the most serious challenge to his authority since he became president in 2013. Maduro’s generals and inner circle have publicly pledged allegiance to him, but opposition officials said they were in talks with other military officers. Guaidó on Friday seemed to speak to the rank and file.

“I want to insist to our military family,” he said, that it is time to put yourselves on “the side of the constitution.” 

As Maduro’s forces staged further raids on dissidents’ homes overnight, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Friday condemned the escalating violence and called for investigations into a mounting death toll. 

In a statement, Bachelet said credible sources have reported that at least 20 people were fatally shot Tuesday and Wednesday by security forces or members of pro-government armed groups. Many others were wounded. She denounced the arrests of 350 people during the protests that unfolded this week.

“I am extremely concerned that the situation in Venezuela may rapidly spiral out of control with catastrophic consequences,” Bachelet said.

Faiola reported from Rio de Janeiro and Hudson from Washington. Rachelle Krygier in Miami, Andreina Elena Aponte in Caracas, Anton Troianovski in Moscow, Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

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