The US embassy in Venezuela is effectively closed

The power has been out in much of Venezuela now for days, including at most of the hospitals, and the nation is unquestionably in the midst of a transitional crisis. Protests in the streets are turning into riots on a regular basis and the few places where any food or medical supplies remain available are being openly looted, with no sign of law enforcement to protect those properties in many cases. It’s not a stretch to say that Venezuela is a country in the midst of collapse.

With that as the backdrop, it’s perhaps not all that surprising to learn that the last of the American diplomatic presence is being withdrawn from the embassy in Caracas. The announcement came from the Vice President last night. (NPR)

Amid continuing unrest in Venezuela, the United States plans to remove all diplomatic personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Twitter late Monday.

“The U.S. will withdraw all remaining personnel from [the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela] this week,” Pompeo tweeted. “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.”

U.S. citizens and government personnel have been advised to avoid areas of demonstrations and large gatherings, which have taken place throughout Venezuela for weeks as President Nicolás Maduro faces pressure from a U.S.-backed coalition to step down.

The interesting part of Pence’s announcement is that keeping our diplomats at the embassy represents “a constraint on U.S. policy.” If the Veep had simply said that the conditions on the ground were no longer safe for our personnel, that would have been more than sufficient. There’s food and running water at our embassy (along with power provided by generators, at least as of a couple of days ago). That makes them a target for potential looting and violence. Spain’s major airline asked for flights to be canceled to Venezuela this week after one of their flight crews was attacked and held at gunpoint. Keeping our people out of harm’s way is a reasonable response.

But it’s a different matter to say that their presence is constraining our policy. That seems to imply that we would be taking stronger measures against Maduro were it not for fears that he might respond by arresting our diplomats and sparking another hostage crisis. We already imposed new sanctions on Maduro and some of his associates just this past week. Aside from the failed efforts to get more food and medical aid over the bridge from Colombia, what else is there left to do?

Are we seriously considering some sort of military intervention in support of Juan Guaido? Whether it was a direct incursion by US troops or support for the Colombian military that’s been staging near the border, either seems like a terrible decision. This is a problem for the citizens (and hopefully the military) of Venezuela to solve, and if they’re going to get any outside muscle to help them, it should come from their South American neighbors. I suppose I’d be okay with some emergency funding or even weapons shipments to the Colombians if they need the help, but putting our boots on Venezuela’s ground, particularly with the Russians already stationed there, seems extraordinarily unwise.

One other consideration is what will become of all the American ex-pats living there. Without the services of the embassy, they could find themselves in a tight spot as the situation continues to deteriorate. Before considering any military aid, we should probably work on getting them all out of there until this mess is cleaned up.