Latin America

U.S. diplomats in Caracas may face virtual siege at the embassy

U.S. diplomats Thursday were restricted to three affluent areas of Caracas and the State Department ordered non-essential personnel at the U.S. Embassy to leave the country, a sign of the stark security concerns around them as they contend with the order of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to depart by Sunday.

A daily security alert from the U.S. Embassy warned that protests may continue all week in Caracas and asked U.S. government personnel to keep their children out of school.

It’s unclear how many U.S. Embassy staff remain in Caracas. The State Department said it would not comment on staffing levels.

But the staff who are there could face harassment on a daily basis as they travel from their homes in the city to the embassy in the Chula Vista district.

“They could be picked up and sent out of the country forcefully. I wouldn’t rule that out. It could get pretty ugly,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank on Western Hemisphere affairs in Washington.

Maduro will want to demonstrate that he remains in charge, even as the Trump administration undermines him with its decision Wednesday to recognize Venezuelan National Assembly Leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president, Shifter said.

“I don’t rule out that there could be some force used to carry out his decision (to expel U.S. diplomats),” Shifter said.

U.S. personnel in Caracas are now restricted to the well-off neighborhoods of Valle Arriba and Santa Fe, as well as the Escuela Campo Alegre, a private school where many U.S. diplomats send their children, the alert said.

The State Department said it would do whatever necessary to protect U.S. personnel in Caracas.

“We are monitoring the security situation in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are prepared to do the things we need to do to make sure we keep our people safe,” according to a written statement given to McClatchy.

The U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, Carlos Trujillo, said he could not offer details on any steps being taken to ensure the safety of U.S. diplomats, including whether dependents would be evacuated.

But he said the United States is not following Maduro’s directive since it doesn’t recognize his legal authority, while “President Guaidó said he welcomes diplomats in the Embassy.”

Like other U.S. diplomatic missions around the world, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas is considered sovereign U.S. territory and is protected by a unit of U.S. Marines who reside within the walled compound.

But those Marines cannot accompany U.S. diplomatic personnel as they transit the city to deliver children to school, shop at local markets or conduct diplomatic work in the country.

“They have no authority to carry weapons and to use those weapons outside the Embassy compound,” said a former U.S. official who is familiar with the U.S. presence in Caracas.

“It’s up to a host government to guarantee the security of personnel in country. The interim president, while asking embassies to stay on the ground, has no control over security services and therefore can provide no guarantees of safety,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does not speak for the administration.

The Embassy has a commissary, showers, generators and other facilities that could accommodate staff for a period of time.

“Almost certainly the administration is going to have to find a way to get most of our people out of there, and leave behind some kind of symbolic presence to show that we did not leave,” the former official said.

“There are any number of complications that are going to have to be addressed. Even if we had a symbolic presence … eventually, depending on how long this drags on, the feeding, the care for that contingent is going to be a problem,” he said.

Diplomatic tussles have been a constant between Washington and Caracas.

In September 2008, U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy left Venezuela amid accusations by then-leader Hugo Chávez of an American plot to remove him. It wasn’t until July 2009 that Duddy returned, serving through July 2010. There has not been a U.S. ambassador in Venezuela since.

In May 2018, Maduro expelled the senior U.S. diplomat, Charge D’ Affaires Todd Robinson, accusing him of interfering in internal affairs.

McClatchy reporter Tim Johnson has been covering national security and technology issues since 2016. He was part of a team that shared a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its investigation of The Panama Papers. Earlier in his career, he spent two decades as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America.