The Last American Diplomats Have Left Venezuela. It’s the Lowest Point in 20 Years of Fraught Relations.
The months-long stand-off between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and United States diplomats stationed in the country ended abruptly late on Monday night with a tweet from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:
For the last two months, since the Trump administration broke diplomatic ties with Maduro’s government, U.S. diplomats in Venezuela have lived in a tense limbo. Though the U.S. government recognizes Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s rightful president, Maduro still controls Venezuela, and, on January 23rd, Maduro ordered all U.S. diplomats expelled from the country within 72 hours. Declaring that only Guaidó had the right to expel diplomats, the Department of State ignored Maduro’s order, and refused to close the embassy. Hours before the deadline he had set for U.S. personnel to exit the country, Maduro backed down, opening up a 30-day window for negotiations with the U.S.
Pompeo‘s tweet on Monday night, 44 days after the original deadline for the U.S. personnel to vacate Venezuela, dropped diplomatic relationships between the two countries to a new low. (In response to Pompeo‘s assertion that leaving diplomatic staff in the country was a “constraint on U.S. policy,” Victor Bevins, a former Latin America correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, tweeted, “It’s worth asking, in which scenarios do diplomats constrain policy?”)
But diplomatic relationships between Venezuela and the U.S. have been fraught for decades, and this is hardly the first time ties have been severed. The Venezuelan government has expelled the U.S. ambassador from the country twice in the last two decades: first during George W. Bush’s presidency, and again under Barack Obama. Since 2010, neither country has had an ambassador in the other’s capital.
Though relations between the U.S. and Venezuela remained relatively stable through much of the 20th century (the oil-rich South American nation was a major oil supplier to the U.S., and a string of right-wing and market-friendly Venezuelan presidents largely conformed to U.S. policy), the landslide electoral victory of leftist and anti-imperialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 1998 introduced tensions in the relationship that have never been fully resolved. After 50 years of U.S.-supported coups across Latin America, Chavez was vocal in denouncing the U.S., and he blamed the superpower for many of Venezuelans’ woes.
Chavez also frequently accused the U.S. of supporting coups against him, especially after the George W. Bush administration immediately recognized the leader who tried to replace Chavez during a coup in 2002. (Awkwardly for the Bush administration, the coup lasted only two days before Chavez returned to power, riding the wave of a popular revolt.) Though the administration denied any involvement in the coup, documents declassified in 2004 revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency knew about the plan, and the Department of State was forced to to answer questions about why it chose not to share details about the plan with Chavez’s government. (Miguel Tinker-Salas, an expert in Venezuelan history at Pomona College, says that there is sufficient evidence to say that the Bush administration “green-lighted” the coup, even if it did not materially support the plotters.)
Though antipathy flourished between Bush and Chavez, Venezuela and the United States maintained diplomatic relationships for almost the entirety of the Bush presidency, largely due to the countries’ close trade relationship. From 2000 to 2008, Venezuela never exported less than 435 million barrels of oil a year to the United States. While Chavez went as far to call Bush “a devil” and “un pendejo” (which, in English, does not mean president), the United States remained one of Venezuela’s most important trade partners for the entirety of the two men’s presidencies.
Chavez finally took the step of expelling Bush’s ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, near the end of Bush’s presidency, in September of 2008. While Chavez accused Duddy of helping orchestrate an American-supported coup, the ouster was was largely seen as Chavez’s attempt to support his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who, the day before, had expelled his country’s own U.S. ambassador. (Bush responded by expelling both Venezuela and Bolivia’s ambassadors to the U.S.)
Tensions cooled when Obama took office in November of 2008, and, a little over nine months after Chavez had first expelled him, Duddy returned to Caracas, and Venezuela again sent an ambassador to Washington, D.C. But relations quickly began to sour again, with Obama‘s Department of State criticizing Chavez’s domestic moves to consolidate his power and his ties with U.S.-antagonist regimes like Iran. In 2010, Duddy finished his posting as ambassador, and Chavez rejected Obama‘s appointed successor. The U.S. then revoked the visa of the last Venezuelan ambassador.
Relations began to free-fall after Chavez died in 2013, and Maduro took power with a slim electoral victory. The Obama administration initially refused to acknowledge Maduro as president, calling for a recount.
Since 2010, in the absence of ambassadors, lower-ranking diplomats in the two countries have managed relations. Both countries have repeatedly, in times of tension, revoked credentials and expelled certain diplomats. But Pompeo‘s move to remove all the staff marks the first time since Chavez’s 1998 election that all U.S. diplomatic personnel have been withdrawn from the country.