Venezuelan President Does an About-Face That Allows U.S. Diplomats to Stay
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela on Saturday backed down from demanding that all American diplomats leave the country this weekend, even as the United States and allied nations continued to press for regime change in the South American nation.
Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said that Mr. Maduro’s government and the United States had agreed to keep diplomatic teams at their embassies in Washington and Caracas for 30 days while the two governments negotiate a downgraded level of diplomatic relations.
Under that scenario, the United States and Venezuela would continue to conduct diplomacy through missions known as interest sections, which serve as de facto embassies for nations that have formally severed diplomatic ties.
The decision represented an about-face by Mr. Maduro, who announced on Wednesday that his government would break diplomatic ties with the United States over Washington’s endorsement of a plan by opposition lawmakers to oust Mr. Maduro and establish an interim government. Mr. Maduro said all American officials in Caracas had 72 hours to leave the country, an ultimatum the State Department said it would not heed.
Saturday’s announcement added uncertainty to the future of diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela amid a standoff between Mr. Maduro and Juan Guaidó, an opposition leader who, with the backing of much of the international community, on Wednesday proclaimed himself the country’s rightful leader.
After Mr. Maduro announced the rupture of diplomatic ties with the United States, Mr. Guaidó called on American diplomats to stay and urged Venezuelan diplomats in the United States to disregard Mr. Maduro’s orders to come home.
In effect, Mr. Guaidó was encouraging them to stay in place and serve as his envoys in the United States. Speaking to a few hundred supporters at a rally in Caracas on Saturday, Mr. Guaidó said several Venezuelan officials had heeded his call, calling it “good news,” although he did not disclose how many Venezuelan diplomats in the United States had pledged to support his quest.
Meanwhile, several European governments on Saturday edged closer to recognizing Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim leader, saying they would do so unless Mr. Maduro agreed within eight days to hold new elections.
“The Venezuelan people must be able to freely decide on their future,” Foreign Minister Stef Blok of the Netherlands said in one of several coordinated statements issued by European governments.
Germany, France, Spain and Britain were also among the nations calling on Mr. Maduro to commit to a new vote. Mr. Maduro’s re-election last year was marred by reports of widespread coercion and fraud.
Mr. Arreaza, the foreign minister, scoffed at the ultimatum.
“Europe is giving us eight days? What gives you the right?” Mr. Arreaza demanded during a session of the United Nations Security Council.
Mr. Maduro continued to strike a defiant tone on Saturday, writing on Twitter that his government “would not rest until we defeat the attempted coup” orchestrated by people who want to establish a “puppet government of the United States empire.”
But his government appears to have decided for the time being not to detain Mr. Guaidó or disrupt his political rallies as support for the 35-year-old opposition leader has grown at home and abroad. Mr. Guaidó proclaimed himself the legitimate head of the executive branch on Wednesday as his supporters took to the streets in droves.
He argued that the presidency became technically vacant on Jan. 10, when Mr. Maduro was sworn in for a new term after an election widely seen as rigged. The country’s Constitution says that the president of the National Assembly, Mr. Guaidó in this case, becomes interim leader if the presidency is vacated.
Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry and the State Department did not respond to a request for information about the status of Venezuelan diplomats. It was unclear how many have pledged allegiance to Mr. Guaidó and whether they would remain accredited as diplomats in the United States.
At least one official, the country’s military attaché in Washington, Col. José Luis Silva, said in an interview with The Nuevo Herald that he no longer recognized Mr. Maduro as president.
At the United Nations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led the charge to build support for Mr. Guaidó at a Security Council meeting dominated by sparring between American and Russian envoys.
“This meeting is yet another attempt by the United States to affect regime change,” said Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador. He called it a “gross abuse.”
Mr. Pompeo said Mr. Maduro bore responsibility for the exodus of more than three million Venezuelans and for the unraveling of a once-thriving economy.
“Maduro has reduced ordinary Venezuelans who once lived in prosperity to rooting through dumpsters to find something to eat,” he said.