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U.S. Pulls Remaining Staffers Out Of Its Embassy In Venezuela


Late last night, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a major announcement on Twitter. He said the United States is withdrawing all remaining U.S. diplomats from Venezuela. The crisis in that country seems to be moving very quickly from bad to worse. The country has been devastated by power outages that began more than four days ago, and public anger has been growing. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas and joins me. Hi, Phil.


GREENE: Let's start with the decision by the United States. Why pull all of the rest of their diplomats out now?

REEVES: Well, Mike Pompeo says it's because of the deteriorating situation, but significantly, he also said that the presence of U.S. staff at the Caracas embassy has become a constraint to U.S. foreign policy. He didn't specify exactly what that means, but it sort of suggests that the U.S. plans to step up its campaign to oust Maduro with tougher measures. It may mean that Washington also wants to avoid having to negotiate with Maduro, who they, of course, don't recognize, over the continued presence and safety of their diplomats. But many here will likely see it as an implicit threat of U.S. military intervention, something that'll be welcomed by supporters of Guaido. They often say they want that but not in the surrounding region, where there's no support for it. And Maduro's hardcore will, of course, see this as more evidence that the U.S. is waging war against them.

GREENE: Well, talk to me about the situation in the country right now. I mean, all of this is coming, and these questions about what the US might do next, with massive power outages. How are Venezuelans coping?

REEVES: This has come as a huge shock to people even though - despite everything that they've been through, David, in the last few years. Communications here are very poor because of the power outages, so it's hard to get an overview. In Caracas, the city's semi-paralyzed. Parts of the town do have power; others don't. Nationwide, schools and government offices are closed. There are serious water shortages. We've seen very sad scenes here in Caracas of people drawing water from a heavily polluted river. It's a nightmare for hospitals. It's not clear how many people will have died because of these blackouts, but it's estimated at least several dozen, and I would expect that number to rise still higher.

GREENE: And Phil, aren't we talking about a country where the economy has all but collapsed already?

REEVES: Yes, indeed, and it's - this is impacting it still further. And don't forget, David, that this country's almost entirely dependent on money that it makes exporting oil. The Maduro government's already lost a huge chunk of income when the U.S. imposed sanctions and refused to pay for crude oil from them, and it's been scrambling around to find other buyers and to raise cash from elsewhere. These power outages appear to have brought oil exports to a halt, so Venezuela's losing many millions a day, and that obviously is going to make the economic crisis, which is already dire here, still worse.

GREENE: OK, so economic crisis, power outages, enormous pressure on Maduro from the United States and other countries - how is he clinging to power right now?

REEVES: Well, it's - he's certainly stepping up the use of force. Last Saturday, when there were demonstrations, we saw many more troops and police on the streets. And he went on TV last night accusing the U.S. of using sabotage, cyberattacks, he said, to orchestrate these - to cause these power outages. And he urged Colectivos to engage in active resistance. This is a pro-government paramilitary organization that has a record for extreme violence and intimidation and is very widely feared by Venezuelans, and that's a frightening development.

GREENE: NPR's Philip Reeves talking to us about all the developments in Venezuela right now. He's in Caracas. Phil, thanks as always.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.