The US says it is pulling its last remaining diplomats from Venezuela, saying their continued presence in Caracas had become a “constraint” on US policy as the Trump administration looks to remove socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
The announcement from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo came as Venezuela struggles to restore electricity following five days of blackouts around the country.
Venezuela’s government said on Tuesday that the decision followed a breakdown in negotiations and continued hostility from Washington.
Foreign minister Jorge Arreaza said the continued presence of the US diplomats “entails risks for the peace, integrity and stability of the country”.
“These are the same officials that have systematically lied to the world about Venezuela’s reality and personally have directed fake, flag-waving operations to justify an intervention,” he said.
Mr Maduro’s government cut ties with the US in January over its recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
US officials rejected that, saying Mr Maduro had no authority to take such a step.
His government later retreated and allowed a skeleton staff to remain at the hilltop US embassy in Caracas as the two countries attempted to negotiate an agreement to allow some sort of representation.
The failure of the talks is likely to aggravate tensions between the two countries.
Mr Pompeo said the remaining diplomats would be out of Venezuela by the end of the week but gave no indication of future policy steps despite past warnings that “all options” — including the use of military force — are on the table for removing Mr Maduro.
The move came after another day of chaos as power outages that began on Thursday evening left many Venezuelans without electricity, water and communications, abruptly worsening conditions in a nation already struggling with hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
People converged on a polluted river to fill water bottles in Caracas, and scattered protests erupted in several cities.
Chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab said he had launched an investigation into Mr Guaido over suspicions he was involved in an attack on the country’s power grid.
Mr Saab said the electrical failure sparked violence, robberies and looting.
A three-year-old girl with a brain tumour was left awaiting treatment in a Caracas hospital after doctors started surgery but then suspended the operation when the power went out, according to the girl’s mother, who only gave her first name, Yalimar.
“The doctors told me that there are no miracles,” said Yalimar, who hoped her daughter could be transferred to one of the few hospitals in Venezuela that would be able to finish the complex procedure.
Schools and many businesses remained closed on Tuesday.
Mr Maduro said on national television on Monday night that progress had been made in restoring power. He also said two people who were trying to sabotage power facilities were captured and were providing information to authorities, though he gave no details.
He earlier blamed the outages on US cyber attacks, although opponents said they were due to the government’s failure to repair a decaying electrical grid.