Maduro abandons demand that US diplomats leave Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaking during a news conference in Caracas on Jan 25, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

CARACAS, VENEZUELA (BLOOMBERG) - Venezuela abandoned its decision to sever diplomatic ties with the United States, stating that each country agreed to keep a so-called interest section open in their respective capitals.

The Saturday evening (Jan 26) announcement that the missions would remain open was a retreat after days of bellicose rhetoric prompted by the US decision to recognise National Assembly leader Juan Guaido as the nation's rightful head of state.

President Nicolas Maduro's election to a six-year term last year has been widely criticised as a fraud designed to keep him and his military allies in power despite the country's years-long spiral into misery and hunger.

This weekend, Mr Guaido's supporters maintained a united front from New York and Brussels to the streets of Caracas, and the country's military attache in Washington declared allegiance to the newcomer.

The European Union demanded speedy elections and US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told the United Nations that the socialist Mr Maduro must go.

"It is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem," Mr Pompeo told the UN Security Council on Saturday during an emergency session called by the US.

Mr Maduro called Mr Pompeo "a warlord" who speaks with "a lot of despair and hate" in a preview of an interview with CNN-Turk channel due to air on Sunday.


Yet Mr Maduro sought to deflate tensions, for now at least, by backing off his earlier order to expel all diplomats.

"I still believe in dialogue," he told CNN.

He said he also wanted his own diplomats "to defend Venezuelan interests in the US", comparing the arrangement to that of the US and Cuba, which had no diplomatic relations but maintained ties through lower-level officials in each country.

The small number of US diplomats in Venezuela, he said, "will remain and comfortably continue their lives with the protection we will provide for them."

Mr Pompeo and President Donald Trump have been intransigent in the face of Mr Maduro's fury. Despite the regime's threats to throw out diplomats and cut off electricity, the US had refused to close its embassy.

However, non-essential staff were leaving the country, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said in a statement, calling it "an effective retreat".

Venezuelan diplomats in Washington were already returning to Caracas on Saturday, he said.

Now, the governments have 30 days to reach an agreement that will establish interest sections, which permit basic consular functions, but are the lowest level of diplomatic exchange.

Remaining personnel will stay in their respective embassies, protected by "diplomatic prerogatives" during that time, according to Mr Arreaza's statement.

There was no immediate response from the US.

Venezuela's competing leaders - Mr Guaido is a 35-year-old engineer-turned-lawmaker, while Mr Maduro succeeded the late President Hugo Chavez in 2013 - are vying for support in the streets, the military and the mainstay oil industry.

The nation's diplomatic outposts are more leverage Mr Guaido would like to seize.

At a Saturday morning rally in Caracas, he said that many diplomats were heeding his calls to stay in place in defiance of Mr Maduro.

"Remember all those consulates that were going to close?" Mr Guaido asked the crowd. "I've got good news for you: They're going to stay open for a long while!"

Colonel Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela's top military diplomat in the US, said in a video widely circulated on social media on Saturday that he supports Mr Guaido.

"The armed forces have a key role in restoring democracy in the country," Col Silva said, calling on the government to "stop the usurpation of executive power".


International relations professor Carlos Luna of the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas said Mr Maduro's decision to allow interest sections represents a "loss in power".

"He made a threat and didn't complete it," Prof Luna said. "He's doing this to ease tensions with the US. When he made the decision to break relations, he did so because he felt obligated, but forcing diplomats out by force carries consequences, especially if you're staring down the world's greatest military power."

Mr Guaido's success in keeping a unified opposition to Mr Maduro at home and abroad - and Mr Maduro's reluctance so far to arrest Mr Guaido - raise the prospect of a grinding stand-off.


The US is betting it has the clout to tip the scales after Mr Trump's decision to recognise Mr Guaido was joined by countries including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Panama.

EU powers shifted towards the US position on Saturday, with envoys of Britain and Germany saying the European Union would recognise Mr Guaido as interim president unless a new election is called within eight days.

Mr Maduro rejected the international ultimatum and said opposition leader Juan Guaido had violated the country's constitution by declaring himself leader.

Mr Maduro, in an interview with CNN Turk aired on Sunday, also said he was open to dialogue and that meeting US President Donald Trump was improbable but not impossible. The broadcaster dubbed the interview from Spanish into Turkish.

Mr Arreaza called the push for a new election "almost childlike".

Mr Maduro has stood firm in the face of demonstrations against his rule this week, winning the endorsement of key military leaders and vowing to defeat what he calls a US-backed coup against his government.

Mr Pompeo on Saturday urged countries to help isolate the Maduro regime economically, saying they should "assure that they disconnect their financial system from the Maduro regime".


The UN hearing was mostly a symbolic clash. With Venezuelan allies China and Russia holding veto power, there was little chance the UN body would agree to take action.

Among the countries rejecting the US request for an emergency meeting was South Africa.

Russia has helped Mr Maduro's government with loans and weapons exports. China has provided more than US$62 billion (S$84.3 billion), mostly in loans, to Venezuela since 2007 and it has paid back in crude.

Mr Moises Rendon, associate director of the Americas Programme at Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said on Saturday that Mr Maduro's opponents should ready themselves for a long struggle.

"The path to restoring Venezuela's democracy and stability will undoubtedly be long and arduous," he said.

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