Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ordered American diplomats to leave his country. The United States refused. What happens next?
Last week, Venezuelan opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido declared the current Maduro government illegitimate. President Donald Trump agreed, announcing that the U.S. considers Guaido “interim president.” Maduro responded by cutting off diplomatic ties and ordering American diplomats out under a deadline that’s been extended for 30 days. Washington said Maduro’s orders are invalid, as he no longer has “legal authority to break diplomatic relations or declare our diplomats persona non grata,” and thus will not withdraw embassy staff. Standoff.
Trapped in the middle of this high-level muscle tussle are America’s diplomats on the ground in Caracas. Maduro threatened to cut off the electricity and water to the embassy. And surely more than one person inside the State Department remembers that it was 38 years ago last week when American diplomatic hostages were finally released by Iran, after government-sponsored “students” took over the United States embassy in Tehran. Will Maduro, who still enjoys the loyalty of the Venezuelan military, harm U.S. diplomats, leading to some sort of military intervention by the United States?
Unlikely. Shooting one’s way out of Dodge is usually used only as a last resort when no one is in charge and thus there’s no one to negotiate with. That’s what happened at the American facility in Benghazi, amid the chaos of a failed nation in the midst of a near-civil war. (Rumors that the Benghazi consulate was used by the CIA to move weapons out of Libya may have also contributed to the breakdown of “diplomatic” norms.)
This is not the situation in Caracas, at least not yet. And under normal circumstances, it’s always better to talk your way out. That said, such rescue scenarios are part of Marine units’ special operations qualification tests, and are regularly practiced. I participated in three such field exercises and many tabletop versions during my 24 years as an American diplomat.
With the glaring exceptions of Benghazi and Tehran, diplomatic hostage situations and evacuations under force are uncommon. Instead, traditions dating back to the Greeks are generally followed. The host country, Venezuela in this case, is always responsible for the safety of diplomats inside its borders. Embassies are special places in that, while they aren’t “sovereign soil,” they are inviolable and off-limits to host country law enforcement and military. As such, the diplomats’ physical presence is often used to send a message. Things will get tense—the symbolism almost requires them to get tense—but in the end, both sides know the boundaries.
The norms were respected throughout the Cold War and beyond. The former United States embassy building in Afghanistan was left largely untouched even as the Taliban has swept to victory. Saddam Hussein did not take any U.S. diplomats hostage, and the old United States embassy in Baghdad was never attacked. The list of all 250 diplomats killed since 1780 contains only a handful who lost their lives under direct attack; the majority were due to disease.
The reason behind this record of general safety is that the treatment of diplomats affects a country’s global standing, and is reciprocal. A government or militia leader knows his relationship with the United States can be affected for decades (see: Iran) if protections are violated. You mess with our people in one place and it comes back to bite you in another—push and you get pushed back.
So while it would be a significant step for Maduro to attack the embassy, every embassy plans for just that to happen. Every outpost, including Caracas, has an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). The EAP explains how the embassy will be defended by its local security forces and/or Marine guards, where people will take safe haven, the locations of friendly embassies, and more. In updating the EAP, staff pace off local green spaces to see if they are wide enough for helicopters to land, and find out how much blood local hospitals keep in reserve.
The embassy and Washington then establish highly classified tripwires for the EAP, identifying which events will trigger which courses of action. If Maduro does one thing, what will we do as a result? And at what point will we evacuate personnel?
A critical tripwire to watch in Venezuela is the availability of outbound commercial transportation, the most common assurance of escape. If local infrastructure is compromised (flights canceled, blockades on airport access), the State Department often moves to arrange an evacuation via chartered transportation.
Military options, including non-violent ones like large transport planes, are a last resort. As the State Department advises, “Rescue by helicopters [and] armed escorts reflect a Hollywood script more than reality.” I once watched a secretary of state twist the arm of an airline CEO to get commercial planes to fly uninsured into a beleaguered foreign airport in order to avoid using U.S. military planes that would have roiled a local conflict during an evacuation.
The airport outside Caracas is still open. So what’s happening in Venezuela?
Last week, most likely following an EAP tripwire, the State Department evacuated dependents and non-essential personnel with a requested local police escort. The evacuation flight was conducted using commercial transportation as an ordered departure. The U.S. is not releasing numbers, but The Washington Post stated that there were originally 124 Americans, including 46 family members, at the embassy. A ballpark figure of diplomats still present in Caracas today would be in the dozens.
Even in the most routine evacuations, things can go wrong. There are never enough diapers for the inevitable delays. Women go into labor. Pets may have to be left behind. Most evacuations limit how much luggage you can leave with, and someone always shows up with more than the maximum weight permitted. Serious stuff happens, too, like a scared soldier at a roadblock who didn’t get the message to allow Americans to pass. A once-junior diplomat, now an ambassador, became a minor legend for smoking a pack of cigarettes (he’d never smoked before) with a group of trigger-happy militia at a checkpoint to calm them enough to allow a convoy of evacuating dependents through.
With only a core staff left, the next big task at the embassy is to reduce the amount of classified material in the event that the building is attacked. Every embassy is required to know how much classified material is on hand and how long it would take to destroy it. If there are three feet of paper in a file drawer, how many hours of shredding would it take for 500 drawers? The goal is to destroy the most sensitive materials well ahead of the threat without requiring the manpower of the entire staff.
Under the “no double standard” rule, the embassy also notifies private American citizens of the dependents’ evacuation. As long as commercial transport is available, citizens are expected to make their own way out of the country, though unlike staff they can’t be ordered to do so. Locally employed staff, Venezuelans, are rarely evacuated. The embassy’s cooks, drivers, and translators are usually left to make their own way in what can be a very dangerous environment if they are seen as American collaborators. Should it come to it, physical control over the embassy compound is handed over to a locally contracted security force. The last American locks the front door behind her.
We’re not anywhere close to that in Caracas.
One path out of the crisis would be to use the extended 30-day window Maduro declared for Americans to depart Venezuela to negotiate a downgraded level of relations. The United States and Venezuela could continue diplomacy through “interest sections,” de facto embassies for nations with no formal ties. The “diplomats” would be gone, at least in name, while talks continued. This is the most likely outcome unless one side demands a fight.
Meanwhile, events continue to unfold both on the ground and in Washington. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced $20 million in “humanitarian aid” to somebody in Venezuela, and don’t be surprised if that is eventually funneled through the military. For the short term, the embassy is stocked with food, water, and fuel for the generator, mitigating threats to cut off services. Washington on Saturday fanned the flames, urging the world to “pick a side” in Venezuela.
Will Maduro push back? If protesters show up at the embassy, will they appear to be under someone’s control? Will they be at the front gate, where the news cameras are, or seeking to encircle the building? Will diplomats be hassled on the street by law enforcement, or ignored when they are “off stage?” These things are being watched as staff hunker down. It is a nervous time inside the United States embassy in Caracas.
It’s hard to say goodbye to evacuated colleagues and dependents, and hard to stay focused on work when your safety is in question. The big decisions are being made outside of your control. Is your physical presence sending a resolute signal of support as diplomats often do, or are you simply bait deliberately placed in harm’s way by the Trump administration hoping for an incident? Like the song, in the end the waiting is the hardest part.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from federal employment and Twitter.