The US will soon impose new sanctions and visa revocations against the regime of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pulled remaining US diplomats from the country and hinted that other, perhaps more muscular, measures are under consideration.
The decision to extract all US diplomats “reflects the deteriorating situation in Venezuela as well as the conclusion that the presence of US diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on US policy,” Pompeo said in a statement early Tuesday, without elaborating on either the constraints or the policy options their removal allows for.
Later Tuesday, Pompeo told a Texas radio station it is time to return Venezuela’s wealth-generating capacity – the country sits on the world’s largest oil reserves – to the Venezuelan people. “Time is drawing short,” he said.
Elliott Abrams, the US special envoy for Venezuela, wouldn’t elaborate on the secretary’s comment about “constraint,” but said that “nothing has changed” in the US approach to the Bolivarian Republic. “All options are on the table,” he said, returning to an administration refrain in remarks to reporters Tuesday.
As the situation in Venezuela deteriorates and the stalemate between Maduro and his opponents drags on, the US has kept the vague threat of military force alive. Few analysts believe the White House would follow through, but they say the threat serves a purpose, as Washington and the opposition tweak their approach in an effort to end the standoff.
By carrying a big stick, Washington maintains its pressure on the regime, these analysts say, and conveys the steep cost Maduro would pay if self-declared interim President Juan Guaido comes to any harm. At the same time, the sheer level of dysfunction in Venezuela is likely to restrain Washington to some degree.
“I think it’s just signaling,” Peter Schechter, a Latin America expert and host of Altamar, a foreign policy podcast, said of the administration’s veiled threats of force. A US military move against Venezuela would isolate the US, Schechter said, as even Maduro’s opponents in the region would be loath to get on board.
US would be ‘absolutely alone’ on military action
“The US would be absolutely alone,” Schechter said. Right-wing governments in the region that would love to see Maduro ousted “are very attuned to what their public opinions believe in and let me tell you, Latin American public opinion will not abide by the United States doing a surgical strike or military intervention in Venezuela,” he said.
“I think the United States understands that any military action would fall under the rubric of ‘You broke it you own it,’ ” Schechter continued, “and Venezuela today is not something you want to own unilaterally – you want to share that honor.”
In the meantime, having the threat hang over the regime’s head serves a purpose, according to Risa Grais-Targow, director of the Latin America section at the Eurasia Group, who said that “there’s a very low-level probability in terms of following through on the threat of military force.”
That said, “It’s a useful threat to have out there, in terms of the behavior of the Maduro government and how it treats the opposition,” Grais-Targow said, noting that Maduro let Guaido re-enter Venezuela after a trip outside the country and has not had him arrested. “The US has made clear that’s a red line,” Grais-Targow said.
Indeed, Abrams told reporters Tuesday that he hopes the regime is “aware of the fact that there are 54 countries … that consider Juan Guaido to be the legitimate President of Venezuela.” He added that if anything happened to Guaido, “not only we, but the other 53, will react immediately.”
“There are a number of diplomatic and financial and economic steps that governments can take,” Abrams said. “The arrest of Juan Guaido would lead a lot of countries to react very quickly.”
Abrams added that “very soon” the administration would unveil “a significant number of visa revocations” as well as “some very significant financial sanctions,” following the Treasury Department’s announcement Friday of penalties against a Russian-Venezuelan bank.
Confidence in Guaido ‘undiminished’
Pompeo and Abrams stressed Tuesday that the diplomats’ departure doesn’t mean a reduction in the US commitment to Guaido or a weakening in resolve about the need for Maduro to go. Instead, they both used the same talking point, saying it was “the right step at the right time.”
US confidence in Guaido, a US-educated 35-year-old, remains “absolutely undiminished,” Abrams said.
A representative for Guaido in Washington said they understood the US decision.
“We thank the US government for its continued support to the Venezuelan people in our quest for freedom,” the source said. “We respect the US sovereign decision to withdraw its personnel. We fully understand the statement of Secretary of State Pompeo on this issue, and stand by it. We wouldn’t want the US Embassy personnel in Venezuela to be a constraint for US policy.”
As Maduro clings to power, the US has been making clearer attempts to peel away his allies. Abrams said the US has been talking to Spain and other countries about offering asylum and working with regime officials as part of a transition of power.
“We have talked about off-ramps and we have talked about wanting some of the regime officials to leave the country as part of a transition,” Abrams explained. “So the question therefore obviously arises: Where would they go? And they may prefer to go to Cuba or Russia, but there are other places, and so that is a conversation we’ll continue to have.”
“Unfortunately, none of the people at the top of the regime have yet made that decision, a decision that they should make,” Abrams continued. “As we’ve said before, we are willing to help them out in those circumstances.”
70% of Venezuelans lack power
For now, with Maduro’s call for “armed gangs” to take to the streets, at least 70% of Venezuela without power and fresh water becoming scarce, Abrams and Pompeo suggested that the situation was becoming physically untenable for US diplomats. They portrayed the withdrawal as necessary for their safety and well-being.
“It was time for them to come back,” Pompeo told a Fox television affiliate in Texas on Tuesday, where he was to give a speech to an energy group. “Their security is always paramount. And it’s just gotten very difficult.”
Abrams wouldn’t say how many diplomats remain in Venezuela, citing security reasons. After an initial January 24 decision to pull nonessential staff and family members from the country, a smaller skeleton crew has been working from the embassy.
After Pompeo’s announcement, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, announced Tuesday morning on Twitter that all US diplomatic officials had 72 hours to leave the country.
Abrams said the decision was made “fundamentally without regard to” Maduro.
“The regime cannot make a decision as to whether we stay or go,” Abrams said.
He added that the US is now in discussions to determine which country will act as its protecting power – or representative inside Venezuela – now that US diplomats are leaving. In North Korea, for example, Sweden operates as the protecting power for the US.
In the meantime, US diplomats will continue their work with the Guaido government, Abrams said. “It’ll be harder because we’re not going to be able to do the face-to-face meetings that we were doing,” he said. “Admittedly, we were not able to do a lot of face-to-face meetings because the embassy staff had become quite small.”
They will now have to communicate by phone, email or meetings outside of Venezuela, he said.
CNN’s Patrick Oppmann and Mitch McCluskey contributed to this report.