Crisis in Venezuela puts strain on ties with US: Washington issues security alert for diplomats in Caracas

The long-burning tensions between US and Venezuela witnessed a sudden escalation when Washington backed a 35-year-old Venezuelan National Assembly lawmaker, who declared himself as the interim president until new elections are held.

Nicholas Maduro, who took the presidential oath for a second six-year term early in January, faced quick isolation. Most Latin American nations — including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru — too, recognised Opposition leader Juan Guaido as the temporary president.

Gripped by the situation, Maduro broke relations with the US and ordered American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours from Wednesday. This came at a time when Venezuela is already dealing with an economic crisis. US, being the biggest trading partner for the oil-exporting country, is capable of further crippling the situation in Caracas.

What led to the crisis?

Years of government corruption scandals and social unrest led to the collapse of the economy in Venezuela, which was once a wealthy nation. Under the Maduro government, the crisis forced millions of Venezuelans to flee, mostly to other South American countries.

Tensions further ramped up earlier in January as Maduro took the oath of office. Many, including the Donald Trump administration, believed that the election conducted in May 2018 was not free or fair because his strongest opponents were barred from running.

After years of infighting, Venezuela’s Opposition united behind Guaido and began calling for mass protests on Wednesday to force Maduro to give up power. Surrounding with supporters, Guaido took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers: “Today, 23 January, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela.”

Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's Opposition leader, holds up an image of independence hero Simon Bolivar as he declares himself interim president. AP

As he declared himself the interim president on Wednesday, Guaido won over Venezuelans who were fed up with the country’s hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido’s move was swiftly recognised by the US, Canada and many Latin American countries.

US for restoration of democracy in Venezuela

US president Donald Trump promised to use the “full weight” of US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy. “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” he said in a statement.

He further said that his administration will continue to hold the “illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people.”

When Maduro fired back and ordered American diplomats to get of the country within 72 hours, Washington said it would ignore the order. “The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela. Accordingly, the United States does not consider Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the US or to declare our diplomats persona non grata,” the US state department said.

Ahead of Wednesday’s protest, US vice-president Mike Pence had said in a statement, “Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power. He’s never won the presidency in free and fair election and he has maintained his grip in power by imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose him.

“The US joins in all freedom-loving nations in recognising the National Assembly as the last vestige of democracy, the only body elected by you, the people. As such, the US supports the courageous decision by Guaido, the president of your National Assembly to assert that body’s constitutional powers, declare Maduro a ‘usurper’ and call for the establishment of a transitional government”

In response to Pence’s comments, Maduro accused him of trying to force a coup and said he had ordered a revision of Venezuela’s diplomatic relations with the United States. “Never before has a high-level official said that the opposition should overthrow the government,” Maduro told a news conference.

Interestingly, such allegations were also made by Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez. In 2002, Venezuela accused the George W Bush administration of supporting the Venezuelan failed coup attempt against Chavez. Though relations thawed somewhat under former US president Barack Obama, it deteriorated once again when the Venezuelan government in 2014 ordered three American diplomats out of the country on charges of promoting violence.

What next

Despite US’ assertion that it would ignore the Maduro’s order, the US state department sensed trouble and issued a security alert on Wednesday. “US citizens are advised that protests may continue through the rest of the week. The US embassy will maintain normal business hours and will receive any US citizens needing emergency services on 24 January, 2019 from 8 am to 3 pm.” It further asked US government personnel to keep their children home on Thursday.

On Thursday, all eyes will be on Washington, where diplomats at the Organization of American States (OAS) —  a continental organisation of 21 countries — will hold an emergency meeting on the Venezuelan situation. The debate is likely to be charged, and the National Assembly’s newly picked diplomatic envoy will be lobbying to take Venezuela’s seat from Maduro’s ambassador.

Venezuela’s armed forces, which has so far remained silent, is also expected to issue a statement. However, is it unlikely that the military — the traditional arbiter of political disputes — will shift its loyalties to Maduro. Irrespective of what follows, the US is likely to not let go of any chance to put pressure to permanently oust Maduro.

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