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Venezuela reverses plan to expel EU ambassador

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In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gives a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela.
In this March 12, 2020 file photo, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gives a press conference at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Matias Delacroix, File
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Venezuela has reversed its decision to expel the EU’s ambassador to Caracas after the move escalated diplomatic tensions with Brussels.

On Monday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro gave the EU’s Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa 72 hours to pack her bags and leave, in response to European sanctions against 11 senior Venezuelan officials.

Following a phone call between the EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell and Venezuela's Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza, both sides "agreed on the need to maintain the framework of diplomatic relations, especially at times when cooperation between both parties can facilitate the path of political dialogue", according to a joint statement.

In 2017, Venezuela was the first Latin American country to be hit by EU sanctions, including individual travel bans, an assets freeze and an arms embargo. Tensions have escalated ever since and culminated last year when Juan Guaido, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, challenged Nicolas Maduro's claim as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.

More than 50 countries, including several EU member countries, as well as the European Parliament, recognised Guaido as interim president. But his attempt to overthrow Maduro has since lost steam, as Maduro managed to maintain control over key institutions, including the judiciary and the military.

Elections expected later this year could restore control of the National Assembly to Maduro loyalists, effectively sidelining Guaido and complicating the country's diplomatic ties abroad.

This week, a UK judge also refused to release roughly $1 billion worth of gold kept in the vault of the Bank of England to the Venezuelan government, further stripping the country of an important source of revenue at a time when Venezuela is grappling with a deep economic crisis, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Expanded sanctions

On Monday the European Council added 11 leading officials to its list of those subject to restrictive measures for "undermining democracy and the rule of law". It accused them of acting against the National Assembly led by Guaidó.

Maduro announced the ambassador's expulsion in an address on state television, saying those who "can't respect Venezuela... should leave it". He accused the EU, which has endorsed Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president, of recognising "a puppet as president".

"What power do they assume they have? Who are they to sanction? Who are they to try to impose themselves on the threat? Who are they? Enough, enough. This is why I have decided to give 72 hours to the European Union ambassador in Caracas to leave our country," Maduro said, before repeating accusations of "European colonialism".

The European Council, made up largely of national leaders, said the individuals targeted were guilty of stripping several assembly members -- including Guaidó -- of parliamentary immunity, and of carrying out politically motivated prosecutions.

Those on the list include Luis Parra, who heads an assembly rival to the one headed by Guaidó.

Earlier this month Venezuela's Supreme Court, which is loyal to Maduro, created a new elections commission, which critics say is stacked with the president's supporters. It comes ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled in December.

The EU decision brings to 36 the total number of Venezuelan individuals under sanctions, which includes a travel ban and a freeze on assets.

European leaders said they would "continue working to foster a peaceful democratic solution in Venezuela, through inclusive and credible legislative elections".

The EU first introduced measures against Venezuela in November 2017, which it said were not designed to harm the country's population.

Venezuela is a once-wealthy oil nation experiencing a declining economic and political crisis that has driven roughly five million people from the country amid shortages of basic goods, soaring inflation and broken hospitals.

While the United States has led the push to oust Nicolás Maduro with sanctions, leaders in Europe and Canada have also thrown their support behind Guaidó, in a coalition of nearly 60 nations.

However, Maduro remains in power with control over the military and international support from allies including China, Russia, Iran and Cuba.