Our beef with Venezuela is on hold, but not over

Last night was supposed to be the deadline for American diplomats in Venezuela to vacate the country as ordered by dictator Nicolas Maduro. After the United States, along with Canada, several South American nations and the EU moved to declare Maduro’s presidency illegitimate, the tyrant had basically cut off relations with America. The White House refused to obey the order and everyone was holding their breath, waiting to see what would happen next. But at the last minute, Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry sent out a “never mind” announcement and said the decision was on hold for thirty days. But that doesn’t really change anything absent some shift in policy on both sides. (Associated Press)

Maduro gave U.S. diplomats three days to leave the country, but the Trump administration said it wouldn’t obey, arguing that Maduro is no longer Venezuela’s legitimate president. That set the stage for a showdown at the hilltop U.S. Embassy compound Saturday night, when the deadline was to expire.

But as the sun set on Venezuela’s capital, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Maduro’s government was suspending the expulsion to provide a 30-day window for negotiating with U.S. officials about setting up a “U.S. interests office” in Venezuela and a similar Venezuelan office in the United States. The U.S. and Cuba had a similar arrangement for decades before the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the communist-run island.

The State Department did not confirm the Venezuelan government’s account, reiterating only that its priority remains the safety of its personnel and that it has no plans to close the embassy.

Venezuela is currently not a safe place to be unless you happen to be in the good graces of the ruling socialist party. Embassy workers have reportedly already shipped family members and non-essential personnel out of the country, but our diplomats and their limited security forces remain. There are also American ex-pats living in various places around the country. With a madman like Maduro in charge, none of them should be considered safe.

The fact that Maduro blinked and opened a thirty-day window for negotiations is a positive sign, but it seems unlikely in the extreme that either side will back down at this point. That means that one month from now we could be right back where we were last night. Can you really imagine Donald Trump backing down at this point and recognizing Maduro as the legitimate president? That’s highly doubtful. And Maduro has been emboldened by the financial, diplomatic and military support he’s received from China, Russia, and Turkey, among others. (Yet another reminder that Turkey is no longer our ally.)

The worst case scenario is one where the clock runs out and Maduro imprisons our entire diplomatic staff. Then we’re back in the equivalent of another Iran hostage crisis. Suddenly, the unthinkable prospect of direct military intervention in Venezuela probably starts becoming more “thinkable” around the Oval Office. In terms of American interests, that brings us to an entirely new level of disaster.

The only escape hatch from the current stalemate would appear to be the people of Venezuela, along with the military, kicking Maduro out and scheduling new elections. There have been cracks showing up in the bond between Maduro and the military recently and this weekend another one appeared. The country’s senior military attache at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, Col. José Luis Silva, broke ranks with Maduro and called on the military to also formally recognize Juan Guaido as interim president. Of course, it’s a lot easier for Silva to say such things from the safety of Washington, D.C. Getting the actual army in Venezuela to follow his lead is another matter.