WASHINGTON — The United States is withdrawing all remaining diplomatic personnel from its embassy in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, because of worsening conditions in the country, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late Monday. The move is a setback for the Trump administration, which had vowed to keep diplomats in the country to legitimize the opposition challenger to President Nicolás Maduro, who cut diplomatic ties with the United States in January.
Mr. Pompeo said the move reflected the “deteriorating situation” in the country and the belief that the presence of American diplomats “has become a constraint on U.S. policy.” The last phrase could be read as hinting at some form of military intervention. Top administration officials have said since the start of the political standoff in January that “all options are on the table.”
The U.S. will withdraw all remaining personnel from @usembassyve this week. This 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.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) March 12, 2019
Mr. Pompeo made the announcement in a Twitter post and a two-line statement released just before midnight on Monday. Hours earlier, in the late afternoon, he gave a briefing on Venezuela to reporters at the State Department without mentioning any concerns about the handful of American diplomats remaining in Caracas.
On Tuesday morning, Mr. Pompeo told a Houston television station: “The people there have done great work. But it was time for them to come back. Their security is always paramount. And it’s just gotten very difficult.”
Because of backing from the military, Mr. Maduro has held onto power despite the hopes and expectations of opposition leaders and the Trump administration.
Last month, Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan challenger to Mr. Maduro’s presidency, and American officials tried to get senior military officers to abandon Mr. Maduro by sending convoys with food and medical supplies overland into Venezuela, forcing officers to choose between ordering soldiers to block the convoys and bar the aid to civilians or defect from the army. Officers chose to block the convoys, reinforcing Maduro’s rule and weakening the efforts of Mr. Guaidó and the United States.
Much of the country, including Caracas, has been without power for five days. Even before the blackouts, the country was struggling with violence, food shortages and the collapse of its public health system. The blackouts worsened the situation at barely functioning hospitals, where patients begged for care.
Brett Bruen, a former American diplomat who has worked in Venezuela, said Mr. Pompeo’s announcement appeared hasty and lacked the details needed to make sense of what American actions and policy are.
“What is our message to Guaidó’s supporters?” he said. “What should American citizens in the country do? How should other countries respond?”
He added that the Trump administration appeared to be invoking the potential use of military force much too frequently — including in Mr. Pompeo’s announcement — and he said this played into Mr. Maduro’s warnings that the United States was the actual power behind an attempted coup.
“This continues to be my main area of concern,” Mr. Bruen said. “They are using this bellicose rhetoric pretty cavalierly. It strengthens Maduro’s position without seeming to be part of an escalation strategy.”
Years of corruption, hyperinflation and a cratering economy set the conditions for a deeper crisis that began in January, when Mr. Maduro was sworn in after winning a second term in what opposition leaders and American officials called a sham election. On Jan. 23, an opposition leader little known outside the country, Mr. Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, invoked the country’s Constitution to declare himself the interim president. President Trump recognized him, as did Canada, most Latin American nations and some European governments.
Mr. Maduro cut diplomatic ties and accused the United States of plotting to overthrow him. The Pentagon put 50 Marines on alert the next day in case the United States needed to deploy a military force to the embassy in Caracas.
Mr. Pompeo decided then to withdraw most personnel from the embassy, but said that because Mr. Guaidó was now the actual president and wanted the Americans to stay, a handful of diplomats would remain to maintain ties with the Guaidó government.
As the standoff began, Mr. Pompeo appeared at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington to rally support for Mr. Guaidó and United States policy on Venezuela. Canada had already been at the forefront of taking an aggressive stand against Mr. Maduro. On Feb. 4, Mr. Pompeo appeared at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council and asked for recognition of the Guaidó government. “Either you stand with the forces of freedom or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem,” he said.
Soon afterward, some European nations announced they were recognizing Mr. Guaidó.
Mr. Trump has exerted pressure on Mr. Maduro through sanctions. Most notably, the Treasury Department announced in late January what is effectively an oil embargo. Additionally, American officials recently announced punishments against a Russia-based bank that the United States said helped Mr. Maduro circumvent earlier sanctions.
The Venezuelan government has blamed the United States for the blackouts, claiming without evidence that they were the result of sabotage and cyberattacks. Outside experts have dismissed those accusations, but the true cause remains unclear.
Mr. Pompeo appointed Elliott Abrams to be the special representative on Venezuela, but Mr. Abrams has a contentious history in promoting forceful and violent United States intervention in Latin America. His role has fueled suspicions among some liberal members of Congress and analysts about the direction of Trump administration policy on Venezuela.
American officials are increasingly framing the effort against Mr. Maduro as one against global communist influence, and they have accused Cuba and Russia of propping up Mr. Maduro. On Monday, Mr. Pompeo blamed them for the blackouts and other social and economic problems.
“When there is no electricity, thank the marvels of modern Cuban-led engineering,” Mr. Pompeo said sarcastically. “When there’s no water, thank the excellent hydrologists from Cuba. When there’s no food, thank the Cuban communist overlords.”
Mr. Pompeo argued on Monday that support was increasing for Mr. Guaidó, who is recognized by more than 50 other nations. When Mr. Guaidó first announced he was taking over as interim president, he did so on a day of large street protests against Mr. Maduro, and many citizens still say Mr. Maduro needs to be replaced.
“We wish things could go faster,” Mr. Pompeo said, “but I am very confident that the tide is moving in the direction of the Venezuelan people.”