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The Trump administration is withdrawing all US diplomats from Venezuela

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they were a “constraint on US policy” in Venezuela.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news conference to talk about the dire economic and political situation in Venezuela on March 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. 
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news conference to talk about the dire economic and political situation in Venezuela on March 11, 2019, in Washington, DC. 
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The United States will withdraw all its diplomats from Venezuela — a move that could potentially exacerbate the political and international crisis in that country.

In a tweet late Monday night, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the announcement with very little warning to only a handful of diplomatic staff beforehand, multiple US officials told me.

“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 tweeted.

The move follows the Trump administration’s announcement on January 24 to bring home all dependents of US diplomats in Venezuela and leave behind only a small presence in the embassy.

But Pompeo’s tweet will only add fuel to the fire in Venezuela.

Since January, the Trump administration, joined by governments in the Americas and Europe, has called for Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolás Maduro to step down, partly because the country has suffered an immense economic and humanitarian collapse during his rule. The US and others now recognize Juan Guaidó, the leader of the country’s opposition-controlled legislative body, as Venezuela’s rightful interim president.

Removing all diplomatic staff, partly as an act of defiance against Maduro, surely won’t calm any tensions.

But in some ways, Pompeo’s decision isn’t much of a surprise.

Venezuela is suffering from a massive five-day blackout, making it even harder for the nation’s people to live and for US diplomats to work. What’s more, in a meeting with US officials on Monday, Maduro’s regime said it wouldn’t offer the traditional privileges and immunities that American diplomats receive when they’re stationed abroad, US officials told me, something Guaidó said he would grant.

That, added to widespread worries about the diplomats’ safety should the situation in Venezuela worsen, likely led to their removal. And there’s a distinct possibility that the worst is yet to come: On Monday, Maduro said “the hour has come for active resistance.”

“I doubt many diplomats are happy to be there amid all these problems,” Timothy Gill, a Venezuela expert at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, told me.

It’s unclear how removing diplomats changes anything

The Maduro-Guaidó standoff is at a stalemate: Maduro continues to cling to power while Guaidó mobilizes the public and world leaders against him. Yet efforts by the US to break the logjam, including trying to send much-needed humanitarian aid throughout Venezuela, have failed.

It’s unclear what effect removing diplomats will really have in changing the reality.

On the one hand, the work of diplomats is more easily done when they’re on the ground, allowing them to interact face to face with local officials. If the Trump administration’s goal is to tip the political situation in Guaidó’s favor, it now has fewer ways to do that.

On the other hand, not having a functional embassy in Caracas is its own major statement. “It’s also possible to say removing diplomats further isolates Maduro, eliminating any lines of contact,” said Gill, adding that “we can be sure there’s more US activity in Venezuela than basic diplomatic presence.”

But as Pompeo said, he felt diplomats constrained US efforts in Venezuela. With them gone, it’s possible the world will soon see what America unleashed in Venezuela really means.

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