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The State Of U.S. Diplomats Who Are Working In Venezuela

Jan 24, 2019
Originally published on January 24, 2019 7:37 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

U.S. diplomats are defying Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's order to leave the country. The Trump administration says it no longer recognizes Maduro's presidency. It is dealing instead with the head of Venezuela's National Assembly. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more on this standoff.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is ignoring Maduro's demand that U.S. diplomats leave Venezuela within 72 hours. Pompeo told the Organization of American States today that the U.S. considers any actions and declarations by Maduro as illegitimate and invalid.

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MIKE POMPEO: The regime of former President Nicolas Maduro is illegitimate. His regime is morally bankrupt. It's economically incompetent, and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core.

KELEMEN: Venezuela's ambassador to the OAS accuses the U.S. of promoting a coup d'etat and an atrocity against Venezuela's sovereignty. But most of the other ambassadors at that meeting are backing the U.S. position, denouncing Maduro's rule and urging security forces not to crack down on protesters. Secretary Pompeo says those forces should protect the interim president, Juan Guido, and stop arresting citizens who are rising up.

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POMPEO: So I reiterate our warning about any decision by remnant elements of the Maduro regime to use violence to repress the peaceful democratic transition.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is offering $20 million in initial humanitarian aid. And national security adviser John Bolton says officials are looking at ways to cut off revenue streams to Maduro. Bolton also told reporters outside the White House today that U.S. diplomats are staying in Caracas.

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JOHN BOLTON: Our personnel are still there. They've been invited to stay by the legitimate government. And consistent with their safety, that's our intention. But we're working really around the clock here to do what we can to strengthen the new government.

KELEMEN: The State Department is evacuating family members and nonessential personnel, and Pompeo says the U.S. will take what he calls appropriate actions to hold to account anyone who endangers the safety and security of the U.S. mission. Still, one former Foreign Service officer, Molly Montgomery, is worried.

MOLLY MONTGOMERY: This really does put our diplomats in the middle of a game of chicken that is in the midst of an already really volatile situation. And I would also just respectfully say to Secretary Pompeo that action after the fact isn't good enough.

KELEMEN: Montgomery, who's now with the Albright Stonebridge Group, says usually diplomatic security is extremely conservative and doesn't let politics come into play.

MONTGOMERY: Senator Marco Rubio has said that allowing our diplomats to leave would be tantamount to recognizing Maduro's continued authority. And I would just say that our diplomats are not political pawns, and so their safety should come first.

KELEMEN: Much will depend on whether Venezuelan security forces remain loyal to Maduro or switch sides to protect the interim president backed by the U.S. The State Department says it is monitoring the security situation in real time, 24 hours a day, and is prepared to do what's needed to keep Americans safe. Administration officials have not ruled out military options, though they say they're focused on economic and diplomatic pressure. Maduro meantime says he is closing Venezuela's embassy and consulates here in the U.S. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.