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Venezuela investigates Juan Guaidó, arrests prominent journalist

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

CARACAS, Venezuela - The United States said Tuesday it would pull its remaining diplomatic personnel from Venezuela this week, rupturing relations as the socialist South American country plunges deeper into chaos.

The move comes as Venezuelan society appears to be unraveling amid a nationwide blackout and critical water shortages that have worsened already dire conditions. The United States has been leading an international effort to force President Nicolás Maduro from power and has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the rightful president of the country.

As tensions mounted in Venezuela, the attorney general announced that Guaidó was being investigated for alleged involvement in sabotaging the national electrical system and causing the blackout, which began last Thursday. The attorney general, Tarek Saab, also accused the opposition leader of sending Twitter messages that "have incited robbery of private property because of the electrical sabotage."

It was not immediately clear whether the allegations could lead to the arrest of Guaidó -a move that could be a turning point in Venezuela's political crisis. He is already under investigation for possible involvement in violence that has erupted since January, and authorities had banned him from leaving the country.

Guaidó brushed off the new allegations, saying: "Here we are firmer than ever."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in statement early Tuesday that the U.S. government was withdrawing its diplomats due to 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."

But Venezuelan authorities said they were kicking out the American diplomats. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Tuesday that the ministry had informed the U.S. chargé d'affaires in the country, Jimmy Story, a day earlier that the government was cutting off diplomatic privileges. In a statement the foreign ministry said it had concerns that the White House would use "protecting its diplomatic personnel" as a "pretext" for the use of force. Venezuela, the statement said, "remains inalterably disposed to maintain channels of communication and dialogue with the United States" in exchange for relations of "equality and mutual respect."

In response to Pompeo's criticism Monday of Cuba as "the true imperialist power" in Venezuela, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez wrote in Spanish on Twitter Tuesday that it was "ridiculous" for the secretary of state to say that when Pompeo's own government has "looted" Venezuela for two centuries" and "celebrated" the power outage. "Don't forget Monroe is not Cuban," Rodriguez wrote in English, a reference to the Trump administration's call for a return to the 19th Century Monroe Doctrine, which warned against outside colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

Fears of a Libya-style collapse in Venezuela are growing, a threat that has raised the specter of the 2012 assaults on U.S. compounds in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Armed pro-government militias known as "colectivos" have escalated attacks in recent weeks, opening fire on civilians and terrorizing communities. Venezuelans already suffering from food and water shortages have become so desperate during the current wave of blackouts that they have started looting stores. The humanitarian disaster is expected to intensify in coming weeks as newly imposed U.S. sanctions begin to ripple through the economy, potentially leading to gasoline shortages and even greater hunger.

Maduro has blamed the blackouts on U.S. sabotage. But analysts and experts in electrical production have said they were likely caused by poor maintenance and the departure of skilled workers.

Analysts said the departure of the U.S. diplomats could make it more difficult for Washington to be in touch with opposition leaders.

"Now the U.S. will not be present, so its ability to collect information directly and play an active role in Venezuela will be very limited," said Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan international affairs expert.

However, he said, the withdrawal of the embassy personnel could pave the way for Washington to take tougher action without having to worry about retaliation against its diplomats. As Venezuela desperately tries to find new markets for its oil, the U.S. government is using the threat of sanctions to discourage other countries from purchasing the petroleum.

Pompeo said in an interview with KTRH radio's "Houston's Morning News" program that the decision reflected concerns about the diplomats' safety.

"Their security is always paramount," he said. "And it's just gotten very difficult." He also said the move would enable the U.S. government to work with Brazil, Colombia and other countries in the region backing Guaidó "in a way that doesn't create further risk to American diplomats."

As Maduro's government struggled to re-start electrical and water service to the country, local media reported that a prominent journalist, Luis Carlos Diaz, was arrested by intelligence agents. He was taken to the Helicoide, the infamous jail for political prisoners, according to the National Union of Press Workers. Diaz anchored a daily radio show and is a well-known commentator on social media.

The government did not immediately say why Diaz was arrested. His detention came a day after a pro-government TV show, "Con el Mazo Dando," broadcast a report alleging that he was involved in planning the blackouts, along with other domestic and international right-wing opponents of the Maduro administration.

"I am profoundly worried about the detention of the noted journalist @LuisCarlos by Venezuelan intelligence services and about his well-being," tweeted Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Chile.

More than 35 journalists - local and foreign - have been detained by security forces this year, according to the journalists' union. Most of them have been released or deported

Although U.S.-Venezuela ties have been strained for years, they began unraveling rapidly in January, when the Trump administration called for Maduro to resign and recognized Guaidó as the country's legitimate leader, citing a fraudulent election last year. At 50 other countries in Europe, Latin America and other areas have subsequently recognized Guaidó.

In response to the U.S. actions, Maduro ordered the expulsion of U.S. diplomats.

The United States in January also slapped strong sanctions on Venezuela's pivotal oil sector, effectively cutting off the nation's single largest source of hard currency - oil sales to the United States.

A temporary agreement allowed a small number of diplomatic personnel to remain in each nations' capitals as Washington and Caracas sought to establish more limited interest sections.

In late February, both sides agreed to a 15-day extension of a month-long negotiation period. That period expired Monday. U.S. staff members are expected to leave within 72 hours.

A skeleton staff of about 20 diplomatic personnel - assisted by local employees - has been manning the sprawling U.S. Embassy complex on a picturesque hill in Caracas. But even running an embassy has become difficult in Venezuela. Hotels, embassies and some restaurants have continued to run on generators, but those require diesel - which is also increasingly difficult to obtain.

This article was written by Anthony Faiola and Mary Beth Sheridan, reporters for The Washington Post. Faiola reported from Miami. Andreina Aponte in Caracas, Rachelle Krygier in Miami, Karen DeYoung in Washington and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, contributed to this report.