Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered American diplomats to leave his country. The United States refused. What happens next?
Last week in Venezuela opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido declared the current Maduro government illegitimate. President Trump agreed, announcing the U.S. considers Guaido “interim president.” Maduro responded by cutting off diplomatic ties and ordering American diplomats out under a deadline now 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 more than one person inside State remembers it was 38 years ago last week American diplomatic hostages were finally released by Iran, after government-sponsored “students” took over the American 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 U.S.?
Unlikely. Shooting one’s way out of Dodge is used only as the last resort when no one is in charge, and thus there’s no one to negotiate with. Whether it’s Maduro, or Guaido, or some as-yet nameless colonel in the Venezuelan army, that is not the situation in Caracas. It is always safer 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 exception of 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 that while not “sovereign soil,” are inviolable, off-limits to host country law enforcement and military. As such, 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 U.S. Embassy building in Afghanistan was left largely untouched even as the Taliban swept to victory. Saddam did not take any U.S. diplomats hostage despite two wars, and the old American Embassy in Baghdad was never attacked. The list of all 250 diplomats killed since 1780 has only a handful who lost their lives under direct attack; the majority of deaths were due to disease.
The idea behind this record of general safety is treatment of diplomats affects a country globally, and is reciprocal. A government or militia leader knows his relationship with the United States and all that entails can be affected for decades (see: Iran) if protections are violated. You mess with our people one place, it comes back to bite you in another — playground rules, push and you get pushed back.
It’s easy enough to confidently write that now, but it is also easy enough to remember a mob outside the embassy shouting, then hearing glass break, while I hid under my desk wondering if I’d get home that day. The rules are clear, but in the breach will the local cops risk harming their own countrymen to protect you? Did the local cops even show up? Is the strongman, seeking to rally his support, really ready to trade on violating diplomatic tradition?
So while it would be 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 will then establish highly classified tripwires for the EAP, agreed upon events to trigger some action. If Maduro does this, we will do that type of things, leading toward an evacuation of all personnel in the extreme.
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 flights to fly uninsured into a beleaguered foreign airport, to avoid using U.S. military planes which would have roiled the local conflict during an evacuation. In the Mid East, the U.S. at some cost negotiated a temporary stop to an artillery attack by a foreign entity to allow commercial barges to enter a harbor in lieu of the U.S. Navy.
The airport outside Caracas is still open. So what’s happening in Venezuela?
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 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 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 a senior person shows up way over the weight set. Serious stuff, too, like a scared soldier at a roadblock who didn’t get the message to allow the Americans to pass. A once-junior diplomat now an ambassador is a minor legend for smoking a pack of cigarettes (he 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 job at the embassy is reducing the amount of classified material just in case 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. Say there are three feet of paper in a file drawer, how many hours of shredding would it take for 500 drawers? The whole idea is to destroy the most sensitive materials well-ahead of the threat without tying up the whole staff to do it.
Under the “no double standard” rule, the embassy also notified 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. Local-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 for someone seen as an American collaborator. Should it come to it, physical control of the embassy compound is handed over to a locally-contracted security force if possible. Some American is then literally is the last one out, locking the front door behind her.
We’re not anywhere close to that in Caracas.
One path out of 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 U.S. 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 continue. This is the most likely outcome unless one side demands a fight.
Meanwhile, events continue to happen both on the ground and in Washington. Secretary 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, do they appear to be under someone’s control? Are they at the front gate, where the news cameras are, or are they seeking to encircle the building? Are diplomats being 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 American Embassy in Caracas.
In such situations it is 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 may be happening outside of your control. Is your physical presence sending a resolute signal of support as diplomats’ presence often does, or are you 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.