WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department on Wednesday opened a representative office for Venezuela in Bogota, Colombia, and said it will continue its opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and support for opposition leader Juan Guaido from there.
The Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU) will be headed by James Story, the U.S. charge d’affaires to Venezuela, who was among the last American diplomats withdrawn from the U.S. embassy in Caracas in March as conditions deteriorated in the country.
“The VAU will continue to work for the restoration of democracy and the constitutional order in that country, and the security and well-being of the Venezuelan people,” the department said in a statement.
Washington has been trying to cut off money to Maduro’s government in an economic and diplomatic campaign aimed at pressuring the socialist leader to step down.
The United States and most Western nations support Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate president. Maduro has accused Guaido of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt earlier this year.
Maduro in a televised broadcast on Wednesday said the United States had lost its capacity to interfere in Venezuelan affairs and dismissed comments by U.S. special envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams in an interview with the New York Times.
“Today Elliott Abrams spoke to the New York Times to give Venezuela rules of conduct, to say that there have to be new presidential elections and that if there are elections, that so-and-so can’t participate,” Maduro said.
“If there’s anywhere that the empire has lost its capacity to impose its policies, it’s Venezuela.”
Opposition leaders insist that the country needs to hold new elections but that Maduro must resign first.
Abrams told the New York Times that the Trump administration would not back elections with an incumbent - either Maduro or Guaido - on the ballot, adding that either should resign if they want to be candidates.
In Caracas on Wednesday, Guaido announced the appointment of four new ministers for foreign relations, economic affairs, asset protection and human rights. The majority of them are out of the country due to legal measures from Maduro’s government.
Leopoldo Lopez, founder and leader of Guaido’s Popular Will political party, will be coordinating the new ministers. Lopez has been in the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas since May after ending his house arrest.
More than 1.4 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia in recent years, fleeing the deep political and economic crisis that has caused long-running shortages of food and medicines.
Colombia has borne the brunt of mass migration from its neighbour.
Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas, Editing by Paul Simao and Lisa Shumaker