Eleven Venezuela diplomats in U.S. defect since last month: opposition

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Eleven Venezuelan diplomats in the United States have defected from President Nicolas Maduro’s government since opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president last month, a representative of the opposition said on Thursday.

Gustavo Marcano, senior aide to the Venezuelan opposition’s envoy to Washington, told reporters that bank accounts for Venezuelan embassies and consulates in the United States had been frozen.

Maduro broke off diplomatic relations and ordered Venezuela’s embassy and consulates in the United States closed after the Trump administration recognized Guaido, who invoked Venezuela’s constitution to declare himself president, arguing that Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was a sham.

Marcano said officials loyal to Maduro had “dismantled” the consulates’ systems before returning to Venezuela. The opposition was working to restore services, he said.

“Venezuela’s diplomatic mission in the United States is working not only to achieve the end of the usurpation and the formal establishment of a transition government, but also on responding to the needs of Venezuelans,” Marcano said.

Carlos Vecchio, the opposition’s envoy to the United States, said that those who defected from Maduro’s government would continue to be employed under Guaido’s interim government. The opposition does not yet have the keys to the embassy, he added.

The 11 defections are out of a total of 56 Venezuelan diplomats in the country and include seven officials who work at consulates, three affiliated with the embassy and one official from the United Nations.

Venezuela’s information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While Guaido has been recognized by dozens of countries and his representatives have moved to take control of Venezuela’s assets and diplomatic facilities abroad, the opposition has not yet succeeded in convincing the military to shift its support.

Maduro calls Guaido a puppet of the Trump administration, which has levied crippling sanctions on Venezuela in a bid to force Maduro’s ouster.

Thursday’s news conference, held at a Washington think tank, was briefly interrupted by two protesters from the activist group Code Pink. One shouted that Guaido’s team was a “fraud.” The other unfurled a banner that said “no coup in Venezuela.”

Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Luc Cohen; Writing by Meredith Mazzilli; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Cynthia Osterman