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US had no choice but to close embassy in Venezuela

But that doesn't mean the days of diplomacy are over. The Trump administration needs to stay the course with a multilateral approach, combined with sanctions and support for Venezuela's legitimate president and the democracy he represents. And please can we stop playing mind games with Maduro.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision political analyst.
US Emassy, Caracas, Venezuela Crédito: AP Foto / Howard Yanes

The decision to close the U.S. embassy is a sad one, especially for American citizens living in Venezuela. But the various tripwires every embassy must set for itself in determining staffing levels, safety and security had all been blown.

While water and gas for generators at the compound are likely sufficient, communications, such as cellphone, radio, and text, have all been seriously degraded.

The Maduro government has called its notorious 'colectivos' (armed motorcycle gangs) into the streets, making movements far more dangerous. The quality of healthcare in Caracas has precipitously declined without electricity. Outbreaks of cholera and other hygiene, water-related illnesses are only a matter of time, as people drink from open sewers.

Finally, while the U.S. commitment to the legitimate interim president, Juan Guaidó, remains unshaken, he can offer only symbolic privileges and immunities to keep U.S. diplomats out of jail and physically protected in their embassy. The de facto Maduro regime is the only entity that can reasonably offer that essential protection for diplomatic work to continue. And they are paying recently released criminals to roam the streets and terrorize the population. Not exactly who you want to get your Vienna Convention guarantees from.

So the lamentable but understandable decision to close shop was made. So far, so good and responsible.

But then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blew it by referring ambiguously on Twitter to the presence of our diplomats being a "constraint on U.S. policy,” setting off immediate speculation that the U.S. is preparing to invade.

It is not.

There is no invasion planning cell at the Southern Command, the U.S. military headquarters for Latin America based in Miami. Venezuela Special Envoy Elliot Abrams, when punked last week by Russian radio pranksters, said flat out the United States is not pursuing that course of action. Guaidó himself said two days ago an invasion would be a “step backwards.”

So why did the Secretary of State purposely put out a confusing tweet?

My opinion: Tradecraft amateurism driven by a Cold War, U.S. vs Russia-Cuba Communism mindset. The decades of anti-Cuba militancy of U.S. officials like Abrams, as well as National Security Advisor John Bolton and his assistant Mauricio Claver-Carone, have created a mindset wherein 'messin' with the enemy’s head' is a prized tactic, mostly as a consolation prize because U.S. efforts to foster fundamental change through diplomatic isolation dismally failed to bring down the Castros or engender democracy on the island.

So 'points' were scored and there were high-fives all around the office when the United States Department of State and the intelligence agencies confused Cuban officials; when we were so clever that we sent them off in the wrong direction; or when we imported piece by piece a massive Reuter’s newsticker to be reconstructed on top of the U.S. interests section building in Havana…only to watch Fidel Castro block it with a sea of flag poles so no Cubans ever read it.

It is this puerile attitude of 'let’s at least screw with them if we can’t forcibly remove them' mentality that grew to permeate thinking about the Castro regime, and I now see it spilling over into the Venezuela arena. Case in point: Bolton’s cutesy yellow notepad with '5,000 troops to Colombia' scribbled on it. He fooled no one.

The Trump Administration continues to pursue a pragmatically sound policy to do the right thing in Venezuela, namely, a multilateral diplomatic approach, support for genuine Venezuelan democrats, economic sanctions and a focus on humanitarian assistance. But the rank amateurism of its messaging, with its see-through scare tactics, runs the risk of undercutting its good work, as senior officials play counter-productive disinformation games with Maduro and his regime.

Moreover, at a moment when between 60-80 percent of suffering Venezuelans support an armed invasion to start to end their misery by removing Maduro, it is cruel to toy with their desperation by hinting at something you do not intend to do.

Final note: one of thanks to the career service men and women led by charge d'affaires Jimmy Story for keeping the U.S. flag flying as long as they did. My sincerest wish is that he lead them back to Caracas soon to re-open our embassy in a Venezuela freed from dictatorship.