President Maduro raises the stakes, closing Venezuelan offices in the US
President Nicolas Maduro has decided to close Venezuela’s embassy and all its consulates in the United States after the Trump administration recognized the opposition leader as president.
Speaking at Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Thursday, Maduro said diplomats and consulate personnel will return to the Latin America country by Saturday.
Maduro reiterated his decision to cut diplomatic ties with the US during a lengthy speech that aired live on state broadcaster VTV . He continuously slammed President Donald Trump, among other top US officials.
“I believe there’s no doubt that Donald Trump wants to impose a de facto government, unconstitutional government, a coup against the people and democracy in Venezuela,” Maduro said. “There’s no doubt that is Donald Trump with his craziness of believing he’s the world’s police.”
All non-emergency US employees were ordered to leave Venezuela on Thursday, according to a security alert. The move comes after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had brushed off Maduro’s order that US diplomats leave the country and they had been restricted to travel within a few neighborhoods in Caracas.
The US Embassy in Caracas opened Thursday but all visa appointments were canceled.
The head of Venezuela’s opposition-led legislature, Juan Guaido, declared himself acting president Wednesday, sparking a mounting political crisis inside and outside the Latin American country and setting the stage for a struggle for its future.
At least 13 countries, including the United States, said they’ll recognize Guaido, but Maduro seized on the US actions. He’s accused the United States of backing an attempted coup, ordered the end of political and diplomatic ties with Washington and gave US diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.
Tense standoff with US continues
Pompeo urged all members of the regional Organization of American States to support Guaido, saying Maduro’s regime is “now defunct” and illegitimate.
Pompeo announced that the United States, in response to a request from the opposition-led legislature, is ready to give Venezuela $20 million in aid to help with food and medicine shortages, to be distributed “as soon as logistically possible.”
The United States said it has asked for a Saturday open meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Venezuela.
President Donald Trump vowed in a statement Wednesday to use “the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.”
Depending on Maduro’s response to the protests, Trump is prepared to take a range of actions in retaliation, including possible oil sanctions, two sources familiar with White House deliberations said.
Venezuela military loyal to Maduro
Hours before Maduro’s speech, military commanders and the country’s defense minister expressed allegiance to Maduro.
In military dress uniform and flanked by members of the military’s high command, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said that Maduro was the country’s legitimate leader — and that Washington and other regional powers were trying to “knock out progressive governments that make them uncomfortable.”
“We will not bend to foreign intervention or a government not elected by the people,” Padrino said in an address aired by state broadcaster VTV.
Moments before Padrino spoke, VTV aired messages of support from Venezuela’s eight regional commanders from their military outposts throughout the country.
Awaiting Guaido’s next move
A day after challenging Maduro and declaring himself acting president, Guaido has mostly stayed out of the public eye.
The head of the National Assembly bowed to restore independence in the troubled nation and called for new elections Wednesday before throngs of supporters in Caracas. He has not appeared in public since then but has remained active on Twitter.
Guaido has thanked world leaders for their support on Twitter and it appears that he’s received calls from many of them.
Venezuelan Attorney General William Saab condemned Guaido’s actions on Thursday, describing the young opposition leader as US officials’ puppet going against the will of millions of Venezuelans who chose Maduro as their leader.
Countries divided over leadership crisis
While many world leaders quickly expressed their support for Guaido, many others stood behind Maduro.
Describing Maduro’s regime as illegitimate, several countries, including the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru, recognized Guaido as president.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK believes “Juan Guaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward.”
European Council President Donald Tusk expressed support for him and called on other European countries to join him.
Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey are among the nations backing Maduro — and Russia in particular is criticizing the United States for undermining him.
Washington’s interference in Venezuela could lead to “lawlessness and bloodshed,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“We see in the unceremonious actions of Washington a new demonstration of total disregard for the norms and principles of international law, an attempt to play the role of the self-proclaimed arbiter of the destinies of other nations,” the statement reads.
A few other countries like Mexico have said they prefer to stay on the sidelines. Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Thursday the country will follow its policy of nonintervention.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for dialogue.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the UN chief said he hoped discussions could “avoid an escalation that could lead to the kind of conflict that would be a total disaster for Venezuela and the Venezuelan people and for the region.”
This is not the first time that the US and many of Venezuela’s neighbors declare they wouldn’t recognize Maduro’s presidency. Maduro’s election in May and the country’s deep economic crisis was a flashpoint for many of them.
The election was boycotted by opposition groups and largely discredited by opponents, with hundreds of complaints of election violations and a low turnout.
10 dead in protests, local NGO says
Sporadic clashes erupted after Guaido’s swearing in Wednesday, leaving at least 10 people dead in nationwide, Marco Antonio Ponce, executive director of the local NGO Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad, told CNN.
CNN has not independently verified the death toll and no official figures have been released by the government.
“I have no words to express the pain I feel as I continue to learn that Venezuelans have been killed during the protests in the last hours,” Guaido tweeted Wednesday evening. “To their families, I can only guarantee that Justice and Peace will reign in our homeland.”
Authorities arrested 175 people in Caracas since Wednesday in connection with the protests, according to Foro Penal, a pro bono lawyers’ group.
Signs of unrest emerged earlier this week in Caracas. A small team of soldiers, claiming to be members of the armed forces, attempted an uprising against Maduro and triggered violent street protests.