Washington (AFP) - Despite declaring Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, the United States has maintained contact with him to ensure the safety of the embassy, a US envoy on the crisis said Wednesday.
Elliot Abrams, who was appointed last week after the United States recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, said that Washington was sending a message that Maduro needed to protect the mission.
"We have contact with the de facto regime -- by which I mean the Maduro regime. We have contacts with them because we are concerned about things like the safety of Americans," Abrams told reporters.
"We have long had contacts with people whom we have not granted diplomatic recognition in different countries around the world," he added.
Maduro had ordered the United States to pull its diplomats by last Saturday. Washington refused, saying it no longer recognized Maduro and that Guaido had welcomed US personnel to stay.
But Maduro did not move to close the embassy physically at the deadline and said Saturday that his government was in talks with Washington on diplomatic representation.
"We have to figure out what the status of the embassy is going to be over time," Abrams said, reiterating US warnings that the Maduro regime "has obligations to protect the embassies and we will hold them to these obligations."
Abrams vowed that the United States would keep stepping up pressure on Maduro, a leftist firebrand who presides over a crumbling economy that has sent millions fleeing.
The United States has already sanctioned Venezuela's state oil company and blocked its assets in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Abrams said assets would be converted into humanitarian aid for Venezuela, although he said there was not much in the coffers of the embassy in Venezuela.
"So we're all looking around the world to see what other assets there are, whether in bank accounts or things like gold," he said.
Abrams is a veteran Republican policymaker on Latin America, playing a key role in anti-communist campaigns in 1980s Central America that were widely criticized by human rights groups.