The top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to ensure that the safety of U.S. diplomats in Venezuela remains a top priority after the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's legitimate president.
Washington's decision to recognize Juan Guaido as interim president Wednesday triggered a series of reactions, with Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro saying he would give U.S. diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country.
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The State Department first responded that it would not comply with that order, but then ordered all non-emergency government staff out on Thursday and advised Americans in the country to leave. There are some 40,000 Americans who reside in Venezuela, according to a senior congressional aide.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) sent a letter to Pompeo Thursday underscoring the threat that security forces still under the control of Maduro pose to U.S. personnel left in the country. The pair of lawmakers also requested regular briefings "to help support State's effort to ensure the safety of U.S. diplomats."
A group of five hostages who are naturalized American citizens also remain in custody in the country. Last May Venezuela released one imprisoned American, former Mormon missionary Joshua Holt, after high-profile advocacy from GOP senators, including then-senators Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Bob Corker (Tenn.).
"As events unfold in Venezuela, the safety of United States personnel and their families must remain a top priority," Engel and McCaul wrote Pompeo. "To that end, we request that the State Department brief the House Foreign Affairs Committee as soon as possible, and then regularly, over the coming days on security measures and contingency plans that you are putting in place."
Engel and McCaul said they too remain "extremely concerned" about Maduro's "autocratic rule" and want to work with Pompeo to help shape U.S.-Venezuela policy.
"Regardless of the administration's policy toward Venezuela, we all agree on the need to keep our diplomats in Caracas safe from harm by making staffing decisions for the U.S. embassy based on the well-being of these individuals and their families," they continued.
Even with administration's recognition of Guaido as president, they stressed that Maduro "retains control over Venezuela's security forces and could use those forces to harm or intimidate Americans diplomats."
After both President Trump and Pompeo recognized Guaido amid nationwide protests in the streets, the country's military leaders continued to back Maduro, despite reports earlier this week that some elements of the military had turned against him.
Moscow, which has channeled billions of dollars to help Maduro hold onto power, warned the United States not to intervene in the country's internal processes the same day Pompeo delivered a speech calling on countries in the hemisphere to reject Maduro and "align themselves with democracy."
A State Department spokesperson said the safety and security of U.S. personnel and their families "is a top priority."
"We are monitoring the security situation in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," the spokesperson said. "We are prepared to do the things we need to do to make sure we keep our people safe. The full range of United States government resources are at the ready to ensure the safety and security of U.S. diplomats and their families."
A congressional aide countered that there was no indication that administration officials "were thinking one, two, three steps ahead" when considering recognizing Guaido as president.
After a meeting President Trump held with Florida GOP senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday while they called on the administration to recognize Guaido as the country's interim leader, the next morning Trump readily complied, making his own announcement.
"After that meeting, the president says ‘okay, let's do this'—and it's typical of the way this administration operates—and there was no plan or thought about the implications for the diplomats' safety."
Another concern about the safety of U.S. personnel as they exit Caracas not mentioned in the letter is the prevalence of Cuban intelligence operatives at every level of the Venezuelan government.
Fears about the security of U.S. diplomats remaining in a hostile country are heightened following the mysterious sonic attacks in Cuba on nearly two dozen U.S. and Canadian diplomats and the FBI's inability to uncover the cause or identify the perpetrators.
The attacks began during the fall of 2016 when the Obama administration was still in in power and continued through the Trump transition and months into Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's tenure at State. U.S. diplomats and other personnel have publicly complained that top State Department officials did not act quickly enough to protect their safety after they became aware of the first mysterious sonic attacks.
After media reports of the attacks surfaced, creating a media firestorm, the United States reduced its embassy staff in Cuba from more than 50 to a maximum of 18. Some of the U.S. diplomats who experienced the sonic attacks suffered permanent damage to their health from the attacks, including cognitive damage, hearing loss, headache and fatigue, vertigo, and other patterns consistent with "mild traumatic brain injury," the State Department has said.
Cuban intelligence officers play a key role in steering Venezuela's state intelligence agency, and many anti-Castro hardliners believe they are at least partially to blame for what they say is a brutal political murder of a Venezuelan opposition leader last year.
A day after Corker visited Maduro, Fernando Alban, a member of the Venezuelan opposition, died at the Caracas headquarters of Venezuela's intelligence agency, according to a Wall Street Journal op-ed with the subhead: "A political prisoner is killed Castro-style in Caracas by state intelligence agents."
Alban had been arrested at Simon Bolivar International airport by security agents Oct. 5, three days prior to his death. Maduro's government said Alban, a devout Catholic, committed suicide by jumping out a 10-story window. But many American foreign policy hands question that explanation, since Catholics consider suicide a grave sin and his friends and family have argued he would never have taken his own life.
As the Journal noted, one of Alban's political allies publicly questioned his cause of death in a piece in the PanAm Post, arguing that the windows in the building in which he was detained were sealed and that prisoners held there are usually handcuffed.
Update 12:43 p.m.: This post has been updated with further information.