CARACAS (Dispatches) -- Relations between the United States and Venezuela appeared all but collapsed after Caracas set a 72-hour deadline for American diplomats to leave the country and the State Department said it was removing all U.S. embassy staff.
Although the two nations did not formally sever diplomatic ties, the move signaled growing tensions as the Trump administration and its allies sought to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and install their favorite in his place.
"The presence on Venezuelan soil of these officials represents a risk for the peace, unity and stability of the country," the government said in a statement.
In a statement, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said he had ordered all remaining U.S. diplomatic staff to leave Venezuela this week because their presence had "become a constraint on U.S. policy.”
The Maduro government said it had ordered U.S. diplomats to leave after negotiations to establish a diplomatic interests section — a kind of de facto embassy — had collapsed.
U.S. special representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams appeared to ignore the order, brazenly stating that the Trump administration did not recognize Maduro as president and so his government could not hold talks or expel diplomats.
"We don’t believe the regime has the ability to tell us when to leave, and we don’t believe [it] is able to provide security” to U.S. diplomatic personnel, Abrams told reporters at the State Department.
In a series of interviews, however, Pompeo said he had ordered the withdrawal to protect U.S. diplomats.
The White House has officially recognized Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as interim president and proactively tried to topple Maduro in a blatant example of foreign intervention in a sovereign nation’s domestic affairs.
The U.S. escalation comes as Venezuela is battling its seventh day of widespread blackouts that have brought new suffering to a country already in crisis. Schools, banks and businesses were closed while hospitals and other critical facilities struggled to provide services.
Maduro accused U.S. agents and his political opponents of causing the blackouts with a cyber-attack. The Venezuelan attorney general’s office opened a criminal investigation into whether Guaido was responsible.
Guaido declared a "state of alarm” over the blackouts and other shortages. He called for more of the street unrest
China offered on Wednesday to help Venezuela restore its power grid. Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said China had noted reports that the power grid had gone down due to a hacking attack.
"China is deeply concerned about this,” Lu said. "China hopes that the Venezuelan side can discover the reason for this issue as soon as possible and resume normal power supply and social order. China is willing to provide help and technical support to restore Venezuela’s power grid.”
Power returned to many parts of the country on Tuesday, including some areas that had not had electricity since last Thursday, according to witnesses and social media.
But power was still out in parts of the capital of Caracas and the western region near the border with Colombia. Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said power had been restored in the "vast majority” of the country.
Maduro has blamed Washington for organizing what he said was a sophisticated cyber attack on Venezuela’s hydroelectric power operations.
The latest diplomatic clash follows dozens of trade and finance sanctions that Washington has imposed on Maduro’s government, adding to the country’s economic woes.
Abrams said on Tuesday the United States was preparing to impose "very significant” Venezuela-related sanctions against financial institutions in the coming days.
Venezuela, which sits on the world’s largest known oil reserves, has become a priority cause for the Trump administration, in part because of Cuba’s widespread influence there.
Beyond sanctions and political isolation, the White House has few clear options. Officials may be waiting for sanctions imposed on Venezuela’s all-important petroleum company to bite.