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Standoff between Venezuela and US intensifies

Juan Guaido gestures to a crowd in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Carlos Becerra

CARACAS, Venezuela - The United States and Venezuela remained in a standoff Thursday as the Trump administration ordered the evacuation of some embassy staff, but declined to remove all personnel despite a directive from President Nicolás Maduro that they leave, while Russia demanded that the Americans cease "intervention" in the teetering oil-rich nation.

Moscow and Beijing have propped up the socialist South American state for years, investing billions through loans and energy deals and setting up what is now a dramatic global power play over Venezuela's future. On Wednesday, Washington recognized Juan Guaidó, head of the U.S.-backed opposition, as the rightful leader of Venezuela, describing Maduro - a former union leader and bus driver accused of turning Venezuela into a narco-state - as a usurper.

The move prompted Maduro to break diplomatic ties with Washington and order U.S. diplomats out of the country by this weekend. Arguing that Maduro had won reelection last year through fraud and is no longer Venezuela's rightful leader, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rejected Maduro's order and indicated that U.S. personnel would not budge.

Maduro subsequently received the backing of a number of generals and senior officials, and he taunted President Donald Trump while vowing to hold onto power. He declared that he would recall all staff from the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington and seven consulates in the United States. He reiterated his demand that all U.S. Embassy personnel in Caracas leave Venezuela by this weekend, calling Washington "infantile" for rejecting his order. He pointedly sidestepped the consequences of U.S. personnel remaining.

"It's Donald Trump that wants to impose an unconstitutional de facto government," Maduro said. "There's no doubt it's him, with his craziness of believing he's the police of the world. This is a big provocation."

Russian President Vladimir Putin entered the fray Thursday, personally calling Maduro to offer his support, the Kremlin said, and referring to the situation in Venezuela as "a domestic political crisis intensified by outside forces."

"The destructive outside interference grossly tramples fundamental norms of international law," the Kremlin said.

The Chinese, who also have helped to prop up Maduro, offered more-tepid backing. Asked repeatedly whether China recognizes Maduro, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, simply stated that "on January 10 this year, President Maduro opened a new term, and many countries and international organizations including China attended the inauguration ceremony."

The rapid escalation of the crisis into a global issue suggested the strategic importance of the South American nation, which has the world's largest oil reserves and has been seen for two decades as a foothold for Russia in the region. Under Maduro, however, Venezuela - once the wealthiest country per capita in South America - has slipped toward the status of a failed state, with millions of starving citizens pouring out of the country in search of food, medicines and jobs. In a tweet sent Thursday, the United States requested a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday to discuss the Venezuela crisis.

Late Thursday, the State Department said it had ordered the departure of a number of embassy employees deemed nonessential and the families of all employees. It did not say how many or when they would leave.

The departure order was made on what a State Department spokesman said was the "current assessment of the security situation in Venezuela." There are no plans to close the embassy.

The U.S. Embassy is already working with a relatively small staff, since the Venezuelan government has not approved visas for additional diplomats for some time, officials said.

Among those staying behind would be the U.S. charge d'affaires, James "Jimmy" Story, a veteran Foreign Service officer, who has served in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

The embassy said it would remain open for U.S. citizens needing "emergency services" but canceled most visa appointments for Venezuelans.

Yet the Trump administration's decision to keep the embassy open in defiance of Maduro amounted to a gambit, effectively turning embassy personnel into pawns in what is an unpredictable international crisis.

Some U.S. officials expressed concern that by ignoring Maduro's demand that all Americans at the U.S. Embassy vacate Venezuela in 72 hours, Pompeo was putting the lives and well-being of U.S. personnel in jeopardy. "It's a volatile situation with a desperate man trying to cling to power. No one can presume to know how this will play out," said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts said Pompeo's refusal to comply with Maduro's order is unique in State Department history. "I can't ever remember diplomats refusing an order to leave by the host government, which is sovereign," said Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Keeping U.S. diplomats in place was "conceptually understandable but pragmatically questionable," said a former senior administration official. Host governments are charged with providing security for diplomatic missions abroad, the official said. The small U.S. Marine contingent there is charged only with securing the embassy itself and an adjoining compound of buildings surrounded by a part-wall, part-metal fence on a hilltop in an upscale Caracas neighborhood.

Because the Venezuelan "armed forces have not sworn an oath of fealty to the new government, the interim president can make no guarantees," the former official said.

Pressure on Maduro from the United States and a host of regional neighbors has given new life to the opposition, which brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets this week.

The crisis erupted with a speed that has shocked many observers, who saw Maduro as likely to cling to power after an election last year that was internationally condemned as a fraud. But his swearing-in on Jan. 10 brought a firmer response from Washington, which threw its backing behind Guaidó's surprisingly formidable bid to unseat Maduro.

A 35-year-old industrial engineer, Guaidó heads the National Assembly, which is widely recognized beyond Venezuela's borders as the only democratic institution left in the country. He has seemed to offer new hope to a rudderless and long-divided opposition, preaching amnesty for the military if it supports him in ousting Maduro.

The nonprofit Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict registered protests in 70 neighborhoods, all of which were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. One death overnight was added to the toll of 11 protesters killed Wednesday. All of the victims were hit by gunshots.

Yet there were signs that Maduro's inner circle may feel constrained from unleashing the full force of the nation's security apparatus. In comments to the media in Caracas, Maduro's defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, denounced Guaidó as "dangerous" and said a coup was being launched to unseat the "legitimate" president, Maduro. But he also avoided bellicose statements against the opposition and called for a national dialogue.

Pompeo said the United States would provide an additional $20 million in humanitarian aid to Venezuela, to be delivered "as soon as is logistically possible."

A host of nations from Argentina to Peru sided with the United States and backed Guaidó. Brazil's new, pro-Trump president, Jair Bolsonaro, not only hailed Guaidó as interim president, but also ordered Brazilian Embassy staff in Caracas to ignore directives from Maduro.

Yet in Mexico, the government of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador maintained its backing of Maduro.

In Europe, where Trump and Maduro are both generally deeply unpopular, several leaders sought to defuse the crisis, calling for a path to new elections without formally recognizing Guaidó's claim as rightful head of state.

In Brussels, European Union leaders proposed "an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections, in conformity with the Constitutional order," according to a statement from EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. "The EU fully supports the National Assembly as the democratically elected institution whose powers need to be restored and respected."

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on Thursday appealed for calm.

This article was written by Anthony Faiola, a reporter for The Washington Post. Faiola reported from Rio de Janeiro and Krygier from Miami. The Washington Post's Anton Troianovski in Moscow, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels, Anna Fifield in Beijing, Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City and Missy Ryan, Carol Morello, Anne Gearan and John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.

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