Venezuelans continue to struggle under a blackout that has been one of the worst and longest in recent memory, in a country already suffering from serious shortages of food and medicine due to economic crisis.
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WASHINGTON – Americans in Venezuela should “strongly consider” leaving the country, the State Department said Tuesday, and agency officials are trying to facilitate travel arrangements for U.S. citizens who want to flee the increasingly dangerous and unstable situation in Caracas.
“We’re pursuing all possible options to secure travel options for U.S. citizens,” Robert Palladino, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday.
Palladino made the statement just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the U.S. would withdraw all of its remaining U.S. embassy staff from Venezuela by the end of this week. Pompeo said the conditions in Caracas have become dire and threatened the safety of American diplomats. The country has suffered massive power outages since Friday, exacerbating an already dire economic crisis and rampant food shortages.
“This decision reflects the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, as well as the conclusion that the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy,” Pompeo said in a statement near midnight Tuesday.
The last part of Pompeo’s statement – that American diplomatic presence in Venezuela represented a “constraint on U.S. policy” – has fueled fresh speculation of possible U.S. military intervention, a step President Donald Trump has said repeatedly is an option.
At a briefing Tuesday afternoon, Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, did not say how U.S. policy was hampered by having embassy staff in Caracas. Asked directly if that was a hint of American military action in Venezuela, Abrams said: “Nothing has changed. We continue to say, because it is true, all options are on the table.”
He said Pompeo made the decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. embassy staff late Monday night because of fears that they would run out of water and fuel for their generators, which they have been using for electricity during the mass blackouts.
“I don’t believe the embassy at this point is connected to any water system, so there’s a question of how do you get fresh water,” Abrams said. And if the embassy runs out of electricity, he added, the diplomats would no longer be able to communicate with officials in Washington.
That “speaks immediately to the safety of our people,” Abrams said. He said he couldn’t disclose the number of American diplomats stationed in Venezuela but they would be back in Washington by the end of the week.
Abrams also dismissed questions about whether the withdrawal of American staff signaled that the Trump administration’s efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro from power was losing momentum. In January, Trump recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as interim president and called Maduro’s regime corrupt and illegitimate. Pompeo and others hoped Venezuela’s military would abandon Maduro and help elevate Guaido to power, but those forces have mostly remained loyal to Maduro so far.
“This does not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela, nor does it represent any reduction in the commitment to the people of Venezuela and their struggle for democracy,” Abrams said. He said the administration would be slapping new sanctions on Venezuela in the coming days and would also revoke additional visas for Venezuelans tied to Maduro’s regime.
The State Department’s latest steps come as Democrats in the House are pushing legislation that would bar the Trump administration from using military force in Venezuela – unless Congress gives its express authorization. The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on a bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, to prevent the administration from engaging U.S. forces “into hostilities with Venezuela” without congressional authorization or in response to a direct attack on the U.S.
Cicilline called Pompeo’s statement “troubling” and said it reinforced the need to Congress to pass his legislation. He said military action could put the U.S. in the middle of a messy civil war in a region where America’s history of intervention already had fueled resentment and suspicion.
“It would be very bloody and awful,” he said.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the bill, said agreed and said U.S. military intervention would only serve to unify the pro-Maduro forces in Venezuela. “We’d be doing Maduro a huge favor. Maduro would rally his troops” against U.S. intervention, he said.
Abrams declined to say if Trump has asked the Pentagon to outline possible military steps.
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