- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The withdrawal of the last U.S. diplomats from Venezuela does not mean the Trump administration is abandoning its support for opposition leader Juan Guaido in the escalating clash with socialist President Nicolas Maduro, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

“It certainly is no display of any lack of confidence in [Mr. Guaido],” Elliott Abrams, special representative for Venezuela, told reporters after the administration announced the diplomat pullout because of the “deteriorating situation” in the South American nation amid rolling blackouts and possible security threats to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.

In announcing the withdrawal, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said one motivation was that “the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy.”


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Mr. Maduro, whose presidency has been declared illegitimate by Washington, sought to spin the development as a victory Tuesday, with his foreign ministry claiming it had ordered the Americans to leave within 72 hours. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Caracas remains open to dialogue but only if it is “based upon equality and mutual respect.”

The Maduro government also launched another internal offensive against Mr. Guaido, the 35-year-old opposition leader whom the U.S. and several Latin American and European powers have spent the past six weeks backing as interim president after what they say was Mr. Maduro’s fraud-ridden re-election vote last year.



Maduro loyalists said they were opening an investigation to explore allegations that Guaido backers sabotaged Venezuela’s national electrical grid to spread popular discontent.

Mr. Pompeo on Monday denied any U.S. role in the crippling blackouts, which began late last week. He said the power outages are the result of “years and years of neglect” by Venezuelan authorities.

But concern is mounting in Washington that Mr. Maduro’s staying power may be greater than initially predicted by Trump administration advisers, including Mr. Abrams, Mr. Pompeo and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton. To date, the bulk of Venezuela’s military leadership has stayed loyal to the regime.

Mr. Abrams sought to downplay the administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. diplomats. Critics pounced on Mr. Pompeo’s use of the word “constraint,” suggesting it could be a prelude to more aggressive action. Mr. Trump has repeatedly refused to rule out military action, though U.S. officials insist they are seeking a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Mr. Abrams told reporters that the move was simply “a follow-on” to the late-January decision to begin removing diplomats. The week’s pullout “is a product of the same considerations for the conditions in Caracas, which make it so difficult to continue keeping the embassy staffed there,” he said.

Among other concerns, including the prospect that Maduro loyalists might seek to attack the embassy, officials said the lack of electricity has become debilitating since generators used to keep lights, computers and phones running need gasoline, which is also in short supply in the Venezuelan capital.

“This was simply the step to take, and this was the right time to take it,” said Mr. Abrams. “This does not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Nor does it represent any reduction in the commitment we have to the people of Venezuela and to their struggle for democracy.”

Military loyalties

The administration, meanwhile, is holding out hope that Venezuelan military leaders will abandon Mr. Maduro and shift their allegiance to Mr. Guaido. Mr. Bolton said Sunday that “momentum is on the side of Guaido” and that key military commanders have already “shifted.”

“They have not sought to arrest Guaido,” the national security adviser said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” He added that Mr. Maduro “fears if he gave that order, it would not be obeyed.”

Regional analysts warn that the situation risks devolving into a grinding political standoff with the U.S. and its allies backing Mr. Guaido while Russia, Cuba, China and others, including NATO ally Turkey, maintain support for Mr. Maduro.

“We need to build up an appetite in Washington for the possibility that this could go on for a while,” said Christopher Sabatini, a Columbia University lecturer who heads the Latin America-focused analysis firm Global Americans.

“The prospect is real that this will be a failed state for some time to come. The idea that there could be just this sort of ‘Berlin Wall coming down’ type of shift was not accurate. This is more like Iraq …,” Mr. Sabatini said in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve maybe bitten off a bit more than we can chew here.”

Mr. Abrams steered clear of speculating on the Venezuelan military’s loyalties and sidestepped a question on whether the Pentagon was drawing up military options for the crisis.

“The president has said all options are on the table,” Mr. Abrams said. “They are. Further than that, it would be foolish of me to go.”

Although a broad coalition has joined the U.S. in backing Mr. Guaido’s claim to power, it is less clear how much international support there would be for a military operation against the regime in Caracas.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that no military action from inside or outside Venezuela would be acceptable to resolve the dramatically deteriorating situation, The Associated Press reported. “A solution cannot be, and should never be, imposed from the outside,” she said.

Mr. Abrams acknowledged that the Venezuelan military — for now — is sticking with Mr. Maduro.

“The fact is that today, the [Maduro] regime has the guns,” Mr. Abrams said. “The National Assembly and interim President Guaido are trying through exclusively peaceful means to bring democracy back to Venezuela, and that is obviously something that we and dozens of other countries support.”

The plan now is to keep ramping up economic pressure on Mr. Maduro and his supporters, said the special representative, noting sanctions leveled in recent days against a joint Russian-Venezuelan bank accused of illicitly financing the Maduro government.

“You will see in the coming days some very significant additional sanctions,” Mr. Abrams said.

He stopped short of saying whether the administration plans to target other countries, such as China or even Turkey.

“Turkey’s support for the Maduro regime obviously is completely contrary to U.S. policy and very unhealthy, and we will continue to take a look at the ways in which that support takes place and in the context of sanctions by [the Treasury Department],” he said. “Maybe I should leave it at that.”

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