US pulls diplomats from its embassy in Caracas, and tensions between Venezuela and Brazil escalate

The United States will withdraw all remaining staff from its embassy in Venezuela, according to a late-night March 11 announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter, who cited the “deterioriating situation” there.

Since March 7, a power outage has crippled much of Venezuela, including Caracas, the capital.

Venezuela has been in a severe economic and humanitarian crisis since 2016. Now, a tense showdown between President Nicolás Maduro and the head of the opposition-led National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, has created political chaos. In late January, following a presidential election criticized domestically and internationally for irregularities, Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela.

The United States supports Guaidó’s bid to unseat the Venezuelan president. Maduro blames the U.S. government for the blackout, saying it’s a ploy to debilitate his government.

Relations between Venezuela and neighboring countries are little better.

Colombia and Brazil – like most Latin American countries – have recognize Guaidó as the rightful president of Venezuela. Their governments have amassed hundreds of tons of medical and food supplies at their borders with Venezuela.

Maduro, who condemns the humanitarian convoys as the pretext for a U.S.-led military invasion, refuses to allow the aid through. Clashes between security forces and demonstrators trying to bring in supplies have killed an estimated seven protesters near the Colombian border and 25 demonstrators near the Brazilian border.

Though he has quietly welcomed planes bearing humanitarian assistance from Russia, an ally, Maduro closed Venezuela’s land borders with Brazil and Colombia, and severed diplomatic ties with Colombia.

Militarizing the border

The recent clashes over humanitarian aid have heightened the risk of conflict between Venezuela and Brazil, too.

As a researcher of crime and violence and [military conflict] in Latin America, I have watched with concern as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro militarizes the country’s border in response to Venezuela’s crisis.

Bolsonaro, a right-wing former military captain, is an admirer of U.S. President Donald Trump and a fierce critic of all leftist governments – including Venezuela’s. He has promised to do “everything” necessary to help Guaidó restore democracy.

In February, Bolsonaro received Guaidó – then on an impromptu diplomatic tour of Latin America – at the presidential palace in Brasília with all the pomp of a state visit.

Guaidó is not the only Venezuelan to arrive in Brazil recently.

Every day, thousands of Venezuelans pour into neighboring countries, fleeing hunger, poverty and scarcity. There are over 3.4 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants worldwide, according to the United Nations.

Colombia has received the brunt of the mass exodus, receiving over 1.1 million refugees and migrants. But an estimated 96,000 Venezuelans have also come to Brazil since 2017, most arriving on foot to the northern Brazilian border state of Roraima. Roughly 65,000 of those Venezuelan migrants have applied for asylum in Brazil.

To manage the influx, Brazil plans to double its already significant military presence at the Venezuelan border, where at least 3,200 soldiers were sent in 2018 to “guarantee law and order.”

Meanwhile, Venezuelan security forces in tanks patrol the border with Brazil to enforce Maduro’s Feb. 21 order that nothing – not aid, not migrants – crosses between the two countries.

The Brazilian Ministry of Defense is negotiating with the Venezuelan army to prevent further violence over humanitarian aid delivery and remove some heavy artillery from both sides of the border. And Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão, a four-star general, says Brazil rejects taking any “extreme measures” in Venezuela.

But the potential for a military confrontation feel very real.