CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro faced increasing international pressure to step down Saturday, as European governments warned they would recognize his chief opponent as Venezuela’s leader unless a date for new elections is set within eight days.
The statements from Germany, France, Spain and Britain came as the U.N. Security Council was meeting at Washington’s request to discuss the economic and political crisis in Venezuela.
The United States is among nearly two dozen countries that recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim leader in recent days, after Maduro was sworn in for a second term following elections riddled with fraud. But Russia, China and others have defended Maduro, whose oil-rich country has been in an economic meltdown for years.
“After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply flawed election it is clear Nicolás Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela,” Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign minister, tweeted Saturday.
Meanwhile, diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela hunkered down to await the consequences of disobeying an order by Maduro to exit the country by Saturday afternoon — an act of defiance that the socialist government has suggested could lead to electricity and gas cuts at the U.S. compound.
The State Department ordered the departure of a number of non-emergency employees and their families after Maduro broke relations with Washington. On Friday, a convoy of official vehicles with tinted windows sped away from the building as the Americans left the country. The streets outside the embassy were quiet Saturday morning, however, with no sign of Venezuelan security forces. Embassy personnel guarded the massive building in the Andean foothills.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expects the rights of those diplomats who remain will be protected.
“It is literally a 24/7, moment-by-moment exercise to evaluate risk to the people who work for me in the State Department,” he said. “And we’ll get this right.”
At the same time, the United States and other nations sought to cut off the Maduro government’s already fragile sources of funding, including a move aimed at putting Citgo — the U.S.-based oil company wholly owned by Venezuela’s state energy giant — in the hands of Guaidó, leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The Bank of England, meanwhile, declined to allow Maduro’s government to repatriate $1.2 billion worth of gold, Bloomberg News reported.
In Washington, Pompeo announced Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, will be a special envoy to Venezuela. A prominent conservative, Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to charges related to the Iran-contra affair but was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, said he relished tackling the situation in Venezuela.
“This crisis in Venezuela is deep and difficult and dangerous,” he said, “and I can’t wait to get there.”
A U.S. Embassy staffer in Caracas who spoke on the condition of anonymity said some personnel had left the country on Friday using commercial flights, and others were slated to leave Saturday and Sunday. Some personnel — he could not say how many — would remain.
The embassy had stockpiles of food and water, he said, but only because that is the norm in a country facing severe shortages of basic goods. Threats of cutting power and water, he said, were ironic.
“It’s a sick joke, because those are the conditions that many Venezuelans have to live in every day,” he said.
Perhaps sensing his slipping position, Maduro offered to meet with Guaidó, “whenever he wants, wherever he wants. If I have to climb (a mountain) at 3 a.m. to dialogue, I will do it.”
The U.S. moves have left Maduro facing a delicate series of decisions on how to manage the presence of the U.S. personnel remaining in Caracas. At a Friday news conference, he repeated his demand issued on Wednesday that they leave within three days. “Let’s wait for the 72 hours,” to pass, he said.
He blamed President Donald Trump for the showdown.
“I love the United States,” he said. “I broke political and diplomatic relations with the government of Trump. But I did not break relations with the United States.”
Maduro said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “assured me of support for Venezuela, more wheat, more investment in the oil sector, more investment in gas, more investment in telecommunications and more investment in military investments.” On Friday, Reuters reported that roughly 400 Kremlin-linked forces were in Venezuela to aid in Maduro’s protection.
Bill Brownfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested three main options for Maduro on Saturday.
Least likely, he said, was that he would order the military to seize the U.S. Embassy, provoking a direct confrontation with Washington. Slightly more probable, he said, is that he would quietly encourage pro-government supporters to do the work for him.
“They come over the gates. What they probably would do is to destroy, or at least to strip, every one of the outer buildings,” he said. “I doubt a mob could get into the building itself.”
Most likely, though, is that Maduro “settles down for a siege” of the compound and doesn’t allow anyone in or out “until they are ready to go home.”
A memo from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas obtained by The Washington Post warned that the “political and security situations are unpredictable and constantly changing” for the 124 Americans, including 46 family members, under its authority as of Thursday night. The memo also noted an estimated 47,500 U.S. citizens — the majority of whom are dual-nationals — are in the country.
In Caracas, the opposition began outlining its plan to undermine Maduro’s authority.
Speaking to a cheering throng in Plaza Bolivar, Guaidó said the opposition was already preparing names to replace the board at Citgo — a move that could lead Venezuela to halt oil sales to the United States, as well as payments on company bonds. That, in turn, could trigger attempted seizures by bondholders and the Russians, who hold a lien on 49 percent of the company.
The loyalties of the military remain key to Maduro’s ability to survive the most serious challenge to his authority since he became president in 2013. Maduro’s generals and inner circle have pledged allegiance to him, but opposition officials said they were in talks with other military officers. Guaidó on Friday seemed to speak to the rank and file.
”I want to insist to our military family,” he said, that it is time to put yourselves on “the side of the constitution.”