Maduro orders Venezuelan diplomats out of U.S. as crisis grows

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday ordered all of Venezuela’s diplomats home from the United States and defiantly closed the country’s embassy as relations between the two nations rapidly collapsed.

Maduro warned that if U.S. officials “have any sense” they will pull out their own diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, rather than defying his order for them to leave.

“They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do,” Maduro said in an address broadcast live on state TV. “You must fulfil my order from the government of Venezuela.”

Tensions have soared between the two nations after the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, who claimed Wednesday to hold the presidency and vowed to remove Maduro, calling him a “dictator.”

Maduro retaliated by severing relations with the U.S. and giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave Venezuela. However, Washington said it would ignore the order after Guaido issued his own statement urging foreign embassies to disavow Maduro’s orders and keep their diplomats in the country.

All eyes have been on the military, a traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, as a critical indicator of whether the opposition will succeed in establishing a new government.

Venezuela’s top military brass pledged their unwavering support to Maduro, delivering vows of loyalty earlier Thursday before rows of green-uniformed officers on state television.

A half-dozen generals belonging largely to district commands and with direct control over thousands of troops joined Maduro in accusing the United States of meddling in Venezuela’s affairs and said they would uphold the socialist leader’s rule.

Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, a key Maduro ally, later delivered his own proclamation, dismissing efforts to install a “de-facto parallel government” as tantamount to a coup.

“It’s not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems,” he said. “It’s dialogue.”

Life in the capital appeared to be returning to normal Thursday after mass anti-government demonstrations a day earlier that left at least a dozen dead in the escalating conflict with Maduro, who has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behaviour by the United States and many other nations in the region.

Guaido, 35, turned up the heat by declaring himself interim president on Wednesday before a mass of demonstrators in Caracas. He said it was the only way to end the Maduro “dictatorship” in Venezuela, which has seen millions flee in recent years to escape sky-high inflation and food shortages.

“We know that this will have consequences,” Guaido shouted to the cheering crowd before slipping away to an unknown location amid speculation that he would soon be arrested. His whereabouts remained cloaked in secrecy on Thursday.

Guaido has said he needs the backing of three critical groups: The people, the international community and the military. While yesterday’s protest drew tens of thousands to the streets and over a dozen nations in the region are pledging support, the military’s backing is far from certain.

Though many rank-and-file troops suffer the same hardships as countless other Venezuelans when it comes to meeting basic needs like feeding their families, Maduro has worked to cement their support with bonuses and other special benefits.

In a video addressing the military earlier this week, Guiado said the constitution requires them to disavow Maduro after his May 2018 re-election, which was widely condemned by the international community because his main opponents were banned from running.

But on Wednesday, there were no signs that security forces were widely heeding Guaido’s call to go easy on demonstrators.

Protesters clashed with security forces, who launched tear gas and fired rubber bullets in cities around the nation. Marco Ponce, a co-ordinator with the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a human rights monitoring group, said at least 12 people were killed in the unrest.

Much of the international community is rallying behind Guaido, with the U.S., Canada and numerous Latin American and European countries announcing that they recognized his claim to the presidency. President Donald Trump promised to use the “full weight” of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro’s government.

China’s Foreign Ministry called on the United States to stay out of the crisis, while Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Venezuela. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Russian Federation Council, called Guaido’s declaration “an attempted coup” backed by the U.S.

Russia has been propping up Maduro with arms deliveries and loans. Maduro visited Moscow in December, seeking Russia’s political and financial support. Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.

Diplomats at the Organization of American States held an emergency meeting Thursday on the Venezuelan crisis, during which 16 nations recognized Guaido as interim president.

Meanwhile, many Venezuelans were looking for Guaido to re-emerge and provide guidance on the opposition’s next steps.

Guaido, a virtually unknown lawmaker at the start of the year, has reignited the hopes of Venezuela’s often beleaguered opposition by taking a rebellious tack amid Venezuela’s crushing economic crisis.

He escalated his campaign Wednesday by declaring that the constitution gives him, as president of the congress, the authority to take over as interim president and form a transitional government until he calls new elections.

Raising his right hand in unison with tens of thousands of supporters, he took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers.

The latest events cap an especially tumultuous week for the troubled South American nation.

On Monday, a few dozen national guardsmen seized a stockpile of assault rifles in a pre-dawn uprising that was quickly quelled, although residents in a nearby slum showed support for the mutineers by burning cars and stoning security forces. Disturbances flared up that night in other working-class neighbourhoods where the government has traditionally enjoyed strong support, and continued into the late hours Tuesday.

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