U.S. diplomatic staff in Venezuela are defying the order of President Nicolás Maduro to leave the country by Saturday and bracing for a backlash from the socialist leader and his military as they hold their grip on power.
On Thursday, a day after political upstart Juan Guaidó declared himself president of the South American country — with the support of the U.S. — Maduro fired back, with a show of defiance and crucially the public backing of key military officials.
Maduro, joined by half a dozen of his top generals, once again lashed out at Donald Trump and his administration for supporting the opposition leader in what Maduro says amounted to a coup d’etat.
“They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do,” Maduro said in an address broadcast live on state TV. “You must fulfill my order from the government of Venezuela.”
Maduro was referring to his order to cut all diplomatic ties with the U.S. and have all U.S. diplomats leave the country by the weekend. The White House says it no longer recognizes Maduro as president so will not comply with the order.
Some non-essential staff was pulled out of the heavily fortified embassy in eastern Caracas, but diplomats remain, the State Department has confirmed.
Earlier in the week, Diosdado Cabello, an ally of Maduro, warned that “maybe the electricity will go out in that neighborhood, or the gas won’t arrive. If there are no diplomatic relations, no problems.”
The State Department has warned citizens to “strongly consider” leaving Venezuela as the possibility of an explosive — and violent — power struggle remains.
Following Guaidó symbolic swearing-in on Wednesday, many Venezuela-watchers were waiting to see whether Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino would break with his long-term ally and support the 35-year-old political newcomer.
On Thursday Padrino declared his unwavering support for “our commander-in-chief, the citizen Nicolás Maduro.” He also hit out at the U.S. over its interference, saying its “criminal plan” to unseat Maduro could spark a civil war.
“It doesn't come as a surprise,” Diego Moya-Ocampos, senior analyst for the Americas at IHS Country Risk, told VICE News. “The high-military command, these gentlemen are basically the government, these are Maduro's closest allies. They fear not only that they would lose their economic and political influence but also that they could be held accountable for illicit activities, including corruption, drug trafficking, human trafficking and human rights violations.”
But Moya-Ocampos says Maduro is not completely in the clear yet.
“What we are waiting to see is whether mid-rank and lower-rank growing discontent will be expressed in a way strong enough to break the chain of command.”
Previous attempts by rank-and-file members of the military to break ranks have failed due to lack of support from higher-ranked officers and a lack of proper coordination.
“The top military leadership obviously exercise considerable control over the rank and file, and as long as the military as a whole remains loyal to Maduro, he’s probably pretty safe from internal challenges, given his evident willingness to do whatever it takes to maintain his position,” Jacob Parakilas, deputy head of the U.S. and the Americas Program at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News
Guaidó has not been seen publicly since Wednesday, but he told Univision he would consider granting amnesty to Maduro and his allies if they helped return Venezuela to democracy.
But despite the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and the EU all recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, Maduro looks to be going nowhere, citing support from Russia, China and Turkey along with the support of his military. Russia has also warned the U.S. not to interfere in Venezuelan politics.
Some experts believe that Maduro will remain in power because the people of Venezuela still associate his government with that of his predecessor Hugo Chavez, which improved the lives of millions of ordinary people.
“There is still massive, significant, popular support for Maduro, but more generally for the government, in the sense that this is the government that represents the Bolivarian revolution,” Helen Yaffe, a lecturer in economic and social history in the University of Glasgow, told VICE News.
“Millions of people have been given a home where they lived in shanty towns and shacks, they have been given access to education and health care, they have been taught to read and write. Those things count. They are still engraved on people's memories,” Yaffe added.
But Moya-Ocampos disagrees with this assessment, saying the government's unwillingness to hold free elections shows they don’t have the popular support.
Cover: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro arrives for a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela. Maduro said that he would not leave his office until the end of his second presidential term in 2025. (Stringer / Sputnik via AP)