Venezuela allows US diplomats to stay, defuses showdown

Updated January 28, 2019

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Picture of the entrance of the embassy of the United States in Caracas, taken on January 27, 2019. — AFP
Picture of the entrance of the embassy of the United States in Caracas, taken on January 27, 2019. — AFP

CARACAS; Venezuela defused a potential showdown with the United States, suspending a demand that US diplomats leave the country as Washington called on the world to “pick a side” in the South American nation’s fast-moving crisis.

Socialist President Nicolas Maduro broke relations with the United States on Wednesday after the Trump administration and many other nations in the region recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, a move that Maduro called a coup attempt.

Maduro gave US diplomats three days to leave the country, but the Trump administration said it wouldn’t obey, arguing that Maduro is no longer Venezuela’s legitimate president. That set the stage for a showdown at the hilltop US Embassy compound on Saturday night, when the deadline was to expire.

But as the sun set on Venezuela’s capital, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Maduro’s government was suspending the expulsion to provide a 30-day window for negotiating with US officials about setting up a “US interests office” in Venezuela and a similar Venezuelan office in the United States. The US and Cuba had a similar arrangement for decades before the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the communist-run island.

The State Department did not confirm the Venezuelan government’s account, reiterating only that its priority remains the safety of its personnel and that it has no plans to close the embassy.

Earlier on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the UN Security Council: “Let me be 100 per cent clear President Trump and I fully expect that our diplomats will continue to receive protections provided under the Vienna Convention. Do not test the United States on our resolve to protect our people.” In the Security Council meeting, critics and supporters of Maduro’s government faced off in a reflection of the world’s deep divisions over Venezuela, which is mired in political confrontation as well as an economic collapse that has caused millions to flee the country.

During the debate, which was requested by the US, Pompeo urged all nations to end Venezuela’s “nightmare” and support Guaido.

“Now is the time for every other national to pick a side,” Pompeo said. “No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.” Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia charged that the Trump administration is trying “to engineer a coup” against Maduro. He said Venezuela doesn’t threaten international peace and security, and he accused “extremist opponents” of Maduro’s government of choosing “maximum confrontation,” including the artificial creation of a parallel government.

Nebenzia urged Pompeo to say whether the US will use military force.

Pompeo later told reporters who asked for a response, “I am not going to speculate or hypothesize on what the US will do next.” Pompeo was accompanied to New York by Elliott Abrams, who was named a day earlier as the US special representative for Venezuela. Abrams is a former assistant secretary of state for Latin America who worked at the White House when a 2002 coup in Venezuela briefly ousted Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2019