(CNSNews.com) – The decision to withdraw remaining U.S. diplomatic staff from Venezuela and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reference to their presence there being a “constraint on U.S. policy” does not mark a change in policy, special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said Tuesday, amid speculation that the U.S. may be signaling plans for military intervention.
Asked during a press briefing at the State Department whether Pompeo’s words were intended as a “hint or harbinger of military intervention or some kind of use of force,” Abrams said, “Nothing has changed.”
“We continue to say – because it is true – all options are on the table,” he added. “But they did not change yesterday.”
On Twitter late Monday night – and again in a brief statement on Tuesday – Pompeo said the staff who remained at the embassy in Caracas after a larger withdrawal in January would leave this week.
He added that the decision “reflects the deteriorating situation in Venezuela as well as the conclusion that the presence of U.S. diplomatic staff at the embassy has become a constraint on U.S. policy.”
Those last words raised eyebrows on social media, and Pompeo was asked about them during a round of media interviews while visiting Houston, Texas on Tuesday.
He offered little in the way of elaboration, however, suggesting only that the attempt to bring stockpiled humanitarian aid into the impoverished country – something which the Maduro regime has sought to block – was part of the thinking.
“We have 200 metric tons of food sitting in the region, trying to deliver into Venezuela to feed the hungry and to provide medicine for the sick,” he told a Texas radio station. “We want to make sure that as we continue to work in the region alongside of our partners, we don’t have any constraints on action that we might need to take in order to achieve that.”
In other interviews he was vaguer about envisaged actions. Pompeo told a local television station that in addition to the imperative to keep them safe, the diplomats’ presence “was constraining some of the things that we think we’re going to need to work on over the next weeks. We wanted to make sure we had the capacity to do that, so they’ll be coming home the next couple or three days.”
He told another TV station, “We wanted to get our diplomatic team back so that our capacity to work with Brazil and Colombia, and all the countries who have joined this enormous coalition to try to benefit the people of Venezuela, can be made in a way that doesn’t create further risk to American diplomats.”
And in another radio interview, Pompeo alluded to the diplomats’ presence making it “more difficult for the United States to take the actions that it needed to do to support the Venezuelan people.”
The Maduro regime disputed that the U.S. of its own initiative took the decision to evacuate the staffers, saying that it had in fact given the U.S. 72 hours to withdraw its remaining personnel.
A foreign ministry statement said their presence “entails risks to the peace, integrity and stability of the country, as has been hinted on numerous occasions by different spokespersons at the highest level of the Trump administration, who have threatened the use of military force under the pretext of protecting its diplomatic staff in Caracas.”
The regime’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, called the U.S. characterization of the pullout decision “an arrogant and defeatist reaction, indicating frustration.”
But questioned on the claim of a 72-hour deadline, Abrams reiterated that the U.S. does not recognize the Maduro regime and so does not believe it has “the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata.”
(The U.S. and 53 other countries recognize National Assembly head Juan Guaido as interim president, pending new elections.)
“So from our point of view, the regime cannot make a decision about whether we stay or go,” Abrams continued, noting that the National Assembly has said on Monday that the U.S. personnel do have the right to stay.
At the same time, he added, the U.S. does not believe the Maduro regime can provide security for the embassy, amid a deteriorating situation.
“So our decision was made really fundamentally without regard to what the regime wants or thinks.”
Abrams disputed the notion that the decision to withdraw the personnel pointed to a lack of confidence in Guaido
“The fact is that today the regime has the guns. The National Assembly and interim president Guaido are trying, through exclusively peaceful means, to bring democracy back to Venezuela, and that is obviously something we and dozens of other countries support.”
“Our support for interim president Guaido is absolutely undiminished and, I think more importantly, the support of the Venezuelan people for him is undiminished.”
Abrams indicated that additional sanctions targeting financial institutions, and revoking of visas, would be coming very soon.