WASHINGTON, USA — The government of Venezuela has backtracked on a decree by President Nicolás Maduro giving US diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry said that it is now negotiating the establishment of a U.S. Interests Office in Venezuela and will allow U.S. Embassy personnel to remain in the country while talks take place.
The statement said talks about an interest section will have a 30-day limit and if no agreement is reached embassy personnel will then have to leave the country.
Meanwhile, international reactions to the attempted ouster of Maduro by National Assembly president, Juan Guaidó, have been mixed.
Spain on Saturday gave Maduro an ultimatum, saying it would recognise Guaidó as president unless he calls elections within eight days.
“If within eight days there are no fair, free and transparent elections called in Venezuela, Spain will recognise Juan Guaidó as Venezuelan president,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a televised announcement.
Spain is closely linked to Venezuela, a former colony, as some 200,000 of its nationals live there.
The European Union endorsed the Spanish ultimatum, saying that it “will take further actions” if new elections are not called in Venezuela in the coming days
“In the absence of an announcement on the organisation of fresh elections with the necessary guarantees over the next days, the EU will take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership,” EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement on Saturday.
Venezuela’s foreign minister immediately rejected the European ultimatum, insisting that Maduro remained the legitimate president despite US-led pressure.
“Nobody is going to give us deadlines or tell us if there are elections or not,” Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told a special session of the United Nations Security Council.
Russia has warned the US not to intervene militarily in Venezuela, saying such a move would trigger a catastrophe.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow would stand with Venezuela to protect its sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in its domestic affairs.
Private military contractors who conduct secret missions for Russia have reportedly arrived in Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for Maduro in the face of opposition protests.
Turkey also pledged for the Venezuelan leader after the US declared Maduro was no longer its president, immediately putting it at odds with other NATO allies.
“We are with you,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Maduro in a telephone call, according to his spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. “My brother Maduro. Stay strong, we are by your side.”
Economic and political ties between Ankara and Caracas have grown stronger, with Erdogan criticising sanctions against Venezuela during a visit there last month, without directly mentioning the US or President Donald Trump.
In a somewhat unexpected twist, the military attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, Col. José Luis Silva, broke with the Maduro regime on Saturday and urged other armed forces members to recognize Guaidó as the country’s legitimate interim president.
“As the Venezuelan defense attaché in the United States, I do not recognize Mr. Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela,” Silva told el Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
On Friday, Elliott Abrams, a controversial figure who was entangled in the Iran-Contra affair, has been named as a Trump administration special envoy overseeing policy toward Venezuela.
Abrams was deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and was instrumental in Middle East policy at the time, including supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
There were also allegations that he supported a failed military coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002.
Abrams held multiple positions at the State Department under President Ronald Reagan, including assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.
He was one of the Reagan administration’s fiercest advocates of armed support for Nicaraguan rebels and became caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal.
In 1991, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about secret efforts to aid the rebels. President George H.W. Bush pardoned him the next year.
Closer to home, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) issued what Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne described as a “timid” statement endorsed by 13 of the 15 member states.
Breaking ranks were Haiti, which recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela in an Organization of American States (OAS) declaration, and The Bahamas, which has indicated it will recognize Guaidó.
Saint Lucia, a member of the so-called Lima Group, had previously indicated its support for Guaidó, but nevertheless endorsed the CARICOM statement calling for “non-interference and non-intervention” , and for “external forces to refrain from doing anything to destabilize the situation”.
“The majority of countries that are in CARICOM do not accept Juan Guaidó as the interim president,” Browne told the Miami Herald. “In fact, we believe that it is an extremely dangerous precedent … which has absolutely no basis in law, it has no constitutional backing, it has no support of international law, and it’s really an affront to democracy within the hemisphere.”
Browne believes that the bloc should have stated its position more forcefully, and said a lot of CARICOM leaders are operating out of fear.
“Fear should not triumph over principle,” he said. “As small island-states, we must continue to stand on the various principles, the principle of non-interference, and non-intervention as well as respecting the sovereignty of states… If we are going to continue to aid and abet these excesses by powerful nations, then the cycle will continue.
“In fact we may even see more brazen interventions into other countries in the Caribbean because it seems to me that the standard we are setting now is, ‘If you do not agree with a regime and you have sufficient power, you can literally appoint a leader.’ I can’t see how anyone can support that principle,” he added. “There are no winners in all of this.”
Following last month’s controversial interdiction by the Venezuelan navy of two survey vessels contracted by energy giant ExxonMobil as part of its oil exploration offshore Guyana, the company reportedly lobbied a number of Republican senators and the US State Department in an apparent effort to protect its existing discovery of some four billion barrels of recoverable oil worth a quarter of a trillion dollars at current prices.
Subsequently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Brazil and Colombia – two countries that have backed the US recognition of Guaidó as interim president – and a number of countries in the Middle East.
National Security Advisor John Bolton engaged in an acrimonious visit to Turkey during which Erdogan refused to meet him.
While there is bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill for the restoration of genuine democracy in Venezuela, there is increasing suspicion that the events in both Caracas and Washington are being orchestrated by ExxonMobil in order to preempt an escalation of the long running border dispute with Guyana, which includes the offshore areas in which the company has a huge commercial interest.
While Trump may embrace a ‘wag the dog’ war as a means of diverting public attention away from his political troubles at home, it may be difficult for the US to persuade a new coalition of the willing to participate in any military adventure against Venezuela, especially since many former allies feel duped by the WMD fiasco in Iraq and would undoubtedly be reluctant to repeat the same mistake.
Not only that, NATO itself, which has been frequently denigrated by Trump, is already split on the issue, with Turkey supporting Maduro and the US and Canada on the opposite side, with the other European allies currently on the fence for the next few days.
And lurking in the wings, stage left, is Nancy the Trumpslayer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose support would be needed for congressional authorisation under the War Powers Act to deploy US armed forces abroad for more than 60 days.