White House warns of "significant response" if Maduro harms U.S. diplomats, opposition leader

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

Mike Pompeo visits the UN

Washington — The White House issued a strong warning to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Sunday, saying that any violence against American diplomats or National Assembly President Juan Guaidó would elicit a "significant response" from the U.S. government. Guaidó has been recognized by the Trump administration and more than a dozen other countries as Venezuela's legitimate leader.

"Any violence and intimidation against U.S. diplomatic personnel, Venezuela's democratic leader, Juan Guiado, or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response," national security adviser John Bolton wrote on Twitter.

Bolton also wrote that the Cuban government's support to Maduro's security forces and pro-government paramilitary units is "well known." Although Havana has been a staunch ally of Maduro's regime, Cuban officials pushed back against Bolton's accusation.

Venezuela has been roiled by large protests for days against Maduro's repressive government and his handling of the nation's collapsing economy — once considered to be one of the strongest in Latin America. After Guaidó, who leads the only opposition-controlled body in Venezuela, declared himself interim president on Wednesday, President Trump and other heads of states across the region shunned Maduro and announced their support for the young opposition leader.

After the scathing rebuke by the White House on Wednesday, Maduro said his government would break diplomatic relations with the U.S. and gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. But Guaidó, in a letter posted on Twitter the same day, asked foreign diplomatic personnel to remain in Venezuela.

On Thursday night, the State Department ordered all non-essential American diplomatic staff and government personnel in Venezuela to depart the South American nation. After U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged nations to "pick a side" during a special United Nations Security Council meeting on Saturday, Maduro's government announced it was allowing some U.S. diplomats to remain Venezuela.

Pompeo has repeatedly said the U.S. government will only recognize actions by Guaidó's office and will deem all orders by Maduro "illegitimate" and "invalid." On Sunday night, Pompeo announced the U.S. government had accepted Guaidó 's designation of Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as Venezuela's Chargé d'Affaires in Washington.

Maduro and other leftist leaders in the region, including in Bolivia and Cuba, have accused the American government of trying to stage a coup in Venezuela. In its fight against communism during the Cold War, the U.S. supported various violent coups in Latin America, including some against democratically-elect governments.

Through anti-government demonstrations and the backing of the U.S. and other countries, Guaidó hopes to force Maduro to relinquish power. Guaidó said on Sunday a national assembly amnesty law would protect soldiers and police officers who defect. Guaidó's comments come one day after Colonel José Luis Silva Silva, Venezuela's military attaché in Washington, rebuked Maduro and pledged to support Guaidó.

But for now, top military leaders in Venezuela have vowed to stand behind Maduro's regime. The embattled leader on Sunday toured a military exercise in the city of Valencia with high ranking officials.

Under Maduro — who replaced fellow leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, another leader accused of authoritarian tendencies, in 2013 — Venezuela has been plagued by economic turmoil, skyrocketing inflation, food shortages, rampant crime and government corruption. The dire situation has prompted more than 2.3 million Venezuelans to flee the country since 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.

To maintain power and stifle public discontent, Maduro has stacked the judiciary with his allies, overhauled the legislative branch and held a tight grip on the military.

First published on January 27, 2019

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