CARACAS, Venezuela (WASHINGTON POST)- The United States and Venezuela were locked in a tense international standoff on Thursday (Jan 24), as the Trump administration kept its embassy staff in the country despite an official order to eject them and Russia demanded that the Americans cease "intervention" in the teetering, oil-rich nation.
Moscow and Beijing have propped up the socialist South American state for years, investing billions through loans and energy deals and setting up what is now a dramatic global power play over Venezuela's future.
On Wednesday, Washington recognised Juan Guaido, head of the US-backed opposition, as the rightful leader of Venezuela, describing President Nicolas Maduro - a former union leader and bus driver accused of turning Venezuela into a narco-state - as a usurper.
The move prompted Maduro on Wednesday to break ties with Washington and order US diplomats out of the country by this weekend.
Arguing that Maduro had won re-election last year through fraud and is no longer Venezuela's rightful ruler, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected Maduro's order and indicated that US personnel would not budge.
Maduro on Thursday declared he would recall all staff from Venezuela's embassy in Washington and its seven consulates in the United States.
He reiterated his demand that all US Embassy personnel in Caracas depart by this weekend, calling Washington "infantile" for rejecting his order.
He pointedly sidestepped the consequences for remaining, but belittled US President Donald Trump.
"It's Donald Trump that wants to impose an unconstitutional de facto government," Maduro said. "There's no doubt it's him, with his craziness of believing he's the police of the world. This is a big provocation."
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin entered the fray, personally calling Maduro to offer his support, the Kremlin said, and referring to the situation in Venezuela as "a domestic political crisis intensified by outside forces."
"The destructive outside interference grossly tramples fundamental norms of international law," the Kremlin said.
The rapid escalation of the crisis into a global power play suggested the strategic importance of the South American nation, home of the world's largest oil reserves and seen for two decades as a foothold for Russia in the region.
Under Maduro, however, Venezuela - once the wealthiest country per capita in South America - has slipped towards the status of a failed state, sending millions of starving citizens pouring out of the country in search of food, medicines and jobs.
In a tweet sent out on Thursday, the United States requested a meeting of the UN Security Council for Saturday to discuss the Venezuelan crisis.
It also appeared likely on Thursday that much of the US staff would be withdrawn from the country amid the escalating tensions.
"It is almost certain that ordered departure instructions will be issued today, to allow the beginning of movement of non-essential personnel and dependents," said John Feeley, a prominent US expert on Latin American and ex-ambassador to Panama, who currently serves as a Univision political consultant.
The US Embassy is already working with a relatively small staff, since the Venezuelan government has not approved visas for additional diplomats for some time, officials said.
Among those staying behind would be the US charge d'affaires, James Story, a veteran Foreign Service officer originally from the small town of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, who has served in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.
The scene outside US Embassy in Caracas, normally abuzz with visa applicants, was eerily quiet, with embassy guards firmly preventing most access.
The embassy issued a bulletin calling on staff to keep their children home from school, confine themselves to two neighbourhoods in the capital and avoid any public demonstrations.
The embassy said it would remain open for US citizens needing "emergency services," but cancelled most visa appointments for Venezuelans. People leaving the embassy early on Thursday said the situation inside appeared normal.
Yet the Trump administration's decision to keep the embassy open in defiance of Maduro amounted a risky gambit, effectively turning them into pawns in what is now an unpredictable international crisis.
Some US officials expressed concern that by ignoring Maduro's demand that all Americans at the US Embassy vacate Venezuela in 72 hours, Pompeo was putting the lives and well-being of US personnel in jeopardy.
"It's a volatile situation with a desperate man trying to cling to power. No one can presume to know how this will play out," said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the news media.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts said Pompeo's refusal to comply with Maduro's order is unique in State Department history.
"I can't ever remember diplomats refusing an order to leave by the host government, which is sovereign," said Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. "Security is supposed to be the responsibility of the host government, and that's generally who embassies rely on for security."
One official at the embassy, Scott Smith, posted publicly on Facebook that concern should be focused on the Venezuelan people, who are facing a severe humanitarian crisis as food and medicines have grown scarce and repression has increased.
"Until the moment they force me to leave this beautiful place, I will do whatever I can - even if it's the smallest of acts - to support these brave people and help them regain their voices," Smith said in his Facebook post.
"No one deserves what has been rained down upon them and I for one am proud to say that I will stand beside them - defiantly - until the end."
Yet, collective pressure from the United States and a host of regional nations including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia to force Maduro out has given new lift to the opposition, which brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets this week. The domestic and international campaigns have severely weakened Maduro, presenting him with the most serious challenge to his rule since he took office in 2013 following the death of his mentor, leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez.
Guaido, the new leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, is challenging the government's deadly security forces by declaring himself interim president.
Venezuelans went through a tense night as spontaneous protests erupted throughout slums in the central, eastern and western sectors of the capital.
The nonprofit Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict registered protests in 70 neighbourhoods, all of which were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. One death overnight was added to the toll of 11 protesters killed on Wednesday. All of the victims were hit by gunshots.
Dozens of injured people flooded Caracas hospitals, and in many areas, people looted supermarkets, bakeries and liquor stores. In some districts, confrontations between armed civilians and security forces were reported. Grenade explosions could be heard in the city center and the eastern slum of Petare, as security forces sought to contain protests and targeted protesters' homes.
Yet there were signs on Thursday that Maduro's inner circle may feel restrained from unleashing the full force of the nation's security apparatus against the opposition. In comments to the press in Caracas, Maduro's defence minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, denounced Guaido as "dangerous" and said a coup was being launched to unseat the "legitimate" ruler, Maduro. But he also avoided bellicose statements against the opposition and called for a national dialogue.
Pompeo on Thursday urged the Organisation of American States to replace Maduro's representatives with ones named by Guaido, and to officially recognise him as the interim president.
Minutes after Guaido declared himself president on Wednesday, OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro said the body would recognise him as the country's leader. Two weeks ago, the OAS rejected Maduro's legitimacy.
Pompeo said the United States would provide another US$20 million in humanitarian aid for food and medicine to Venezuela, to be delivered "as soon as is logistically possible."
The crisis has erupted with a speed that has shocked many observers, who saw Maduro as likely to cling to power following elections last year that were internationally condemned as a fraudulent power grab. But his swearing-in on Jan 10 brought a firmer response from the Trump administration, which has thrown its backing behind Guaido's surprisingly formidable bid to unseat Maduro.
A 35-year-old industrial engineer, Guaido heads a National Assembly stripped of its powers by Maduro, but which is widely recognised beyond Venezuela's borders as the only democratic institution left in the country. He has seemed to offer new hope to a rudderless and long-divided opposition, preaching amnesty for the military if it supports him in ousting Maduro.
Venezuela's strategic importance as a nation harboring the world's largest oil reserves and as a socialist ally of Russia, China and Cuba gave the crisis here an immediate global dynamic.
Russia, the source of billions of dollars in loans to Venezuela, insisted that Maduro remains the legitimate president and slammed the US approach. Russian officials and pro-Kremlin lawmakers said that Venezuela - after Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Syria - was becoming the latest victim of global US efforts to foment regime change in violation of international norms.
The Chinese, who have also propped up Maduro, appeared to offer more tepid backing.
Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said that "external sanctions and interference often complicate the situation."
Asked repeatedly whether China recognises Maduro, she simply stated that "on Jan 10 this year, President Maduro opened a new term, and many countries and international organisations including China attended the inauguration ceremony."
She added that China hopes that the Venezuelan sides could resolve "political differences through dialogue and consultation."
The Venezuelan crisis was dividing Latin America, upending preconceptions about the region's long adherence to noninterference.
A host of nations from Argentina to Peru sided with the United States and backed Guaido. Brazil's new pro-Trump president, Jair Bolsonaro, not only hailed Guaido as interim president but ordered Brazilian Embassy staff in Caracas to ignore directives from Maduro.
Yet in Mexico, the government of leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador maintained its backing of Maduro.
In Europe, where both Trump and Maduro are generally deeply unpopular, several leaders sought to defuse the crisis, calling for a path to new elections without formally recognising Guaido's claim as rightful head of state.
In Brussels, European Union leaders proposed "an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections, in conformity with the Constitutional order," according to a statement from EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
"The EU fully supports the National Assembly as the democratically elected institution whose powers need to be restored and respected."
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday appealed for calm.