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Pompeo: U.S. diplomats to remain in Venezuela

By UPI Staff   |   Jan. 23, 2019 at 2:28 PM
Thousands of Venezuelans living in Spain attend a march in support of Juan Guaido in Madrid, Spain on Wednesday. Photo by JuanJo Martin/EPA-EFE Juan Guaido (C), President of the Venezuelan Parliament, greets the crowd as he announces that he assumes executive powers, in Caracas, Venezuela on Wednesday. Photo by Miguel Gutiérrez/EPA-EFE Protests occurred in Venezuela Wednesday to oppose President Nicolas Maduro and his government. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez/EPA-EFE

Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday night that the United States will continue diplomatic relations with Venezuela as President Nicolas Maduro does not have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations or to declare diplomats persona non grata.

The statement comes hours after Maduro broke off relations with the United States and ordered its diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours while accusing the United States of leading a coup to install a puppet presidency in the South American country.

"The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela," Pompeo said in a statement.

Pompeo then called on the Venezuelan military and security forces to continue to protect its citizens and foreign nationals, stating that if their safety is threatened, the United States would respond.

"The United States will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel," Pompeo said.

Earlier Wednesday, President Donald Trump formally recognized the head of Venezuela's national Assembly -- the opposition leader -- Juan Guaido, as interim president and encouraged the Maduro regime to accept a peaceful transition of power.

A senior official in the Trump administration official warned the Maduro regime that if it harmed Guaido or other National Assembly members, "all options are on the table in the U.S. in regards to actions to be taken." The announcement came as thousands of anti-government protesters and regime loyalists demonstrated on the streets.

The demonstrations happened two days after a military coup attempted to overthrow Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term this month.

Maduro won snap elections in May amid a boycott by opponents. The United States, European Union and neighboring Latin American countries called the election a fraud. Protesters opposed to Maduro's election support Guaido and want him to lead a transitional government until new elections are held.

A senior administration official, speaking to reporters during a background briefing call Wednesday, cited Article 2 of the Constitution giving the president the authority to recognize Guaido.

"In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country's Constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant," Trump said. "The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law."

The United States will continue to put economic and diplomatic pressure on the South American nation, Trump said. He's also urged other South and North American nations to support Guaido and work with him to restore a constitutional democracy.

A senior official said that if the Maduro regime takes actions against Guaido, the United States would impose further sanctions against Venezuela, adding that Washington had "barely scratched the surface" of economic punishment.

The official declined to further elaborate on other punishment options.

"When we say all options are on the table, we mean all options are on the table," he said.

Trump's announcement came one day after Vice President Mike Pence called Maduro a dictator who has no "legitimate claim to power."

"As the good people of Venezuela make your voices heard tomorrow, on behalf of the American people, we say: Estamos con ustedes [We are with you]," he added in a video posted to Twitter. "We are with you. We stand with you, and we will stay with you until Democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of [freedom]."

In response, Maduro called for a "total absolute revision" of Venezuela's diplomatic relations with the United States and said the country will make "political, diplomatic and defense decisions" to protect the country's democracy. He also accused Pence of inciting the coup attempt earlier this week.

"Never before has an official of the highest level come out in the name of his government -- he spoke on behalf of the president of the United States -- to say that in Venezuela, the opposition must overthrow the government," Maduro said in a televised message.

Guaido said his bid to replace Maduro is also backed by Venezuela's Constitution.

Wednesday's protests are about "reuniting the people to tell the world about the steps we're going to take to end the usurpation, to achieve a transitional government and a free election," he said.

The Venezuelan National Assembly pushed a bill Tuesday to offer amnesty for civilians and military officials who acted against Maduro. But the Venezuelan Supreme Court, in support of Maduro, ruled the National Assembly is illegitimate and its laws have no value.

Monday's coup attempt was quickly suppressed and 27 soldiers were arrested.

Venezuelan Communication Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the mutiny was an attempt by soldiers to steal weapons and give them to opponents of the government "so they can carry out acts of violence, [cause] injuries and deaths during the protest."

The oil-rich nation squandered its wealth through mismanagement, wrecking its economy and pushing up to 3 million Venezuelans to flee the country since 2014.

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