Trump threatens Venezuela with ‘military option’

  • Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro waves as he arrives at the National Assembly building Thursday to attend a session of the Constitutional Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. AP PHOTO

McClatchy Washington Bureau
Friday, August 11, 2017

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump Friday threatened military action against Venezuela Friday in a comment sure to roil the divided South American nation and alarm its neighbors.

Trump made the statement at a news conference on the growing concerns of military action in North Korea, immediately raising the specter of United States intervening in two conflicts simultaneously, including one in its own hemisphere.

“Venezuela is a mess,” Trump said. “This is our neighbor. We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering. And they’re dying.”

The U.S. has stepped up sanctions against Venezuelan officials in recent weeks. On Thursday, President Nicolas Maduro said he wanted to talk to Trump to overcome their differences.

“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary,” Trump said.

They were the strongest words from Trump since the administration called Maduro a dictator and froze his assets after the July 30 vote in Venezuela that will allow a new constituent assembly to change the Venezuelan constitution and strip current lawmakers of power.

Conditions in Venezuela have gone from bad to worse in recent months with a deepening economic crisis, rising inflation and an alarming homicide rate. In recent months, anti-government demonstrations have broken out daily as citizens take to the streets to protest the lack of even the most basic goods.

Trump's comments are sure to focus new attention on Vice President Mike Pence's upcoming six-day tour of the region, which will include stops in Cartagena, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; and Panama City. Pence is set to arrive in Colombia on Sunday and is expected to meet with each of the countries' leaders, deliver a major speech on U.S.-Latin American relations and tour the newly expanded Panama Canal.

Critics said Trump was needlessly escalating a situation that could isolate the United States in a region that has historically opposed heavy-handed measures.

“This is the worst possible approach to take with an already volatile situation in Venezuela,” said Ben Rhodes, who was deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama.

Among Venezuela-watchers in Washington, the reaction ranged from laughter to disbelief Friday evening.

“On the most benign level, it’s not an actual threat, so let’s not assume that the Marines are loading up the airplanes right now,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas.

Some Venezuelans may see hope in Trump’s remarks, but Farnsworth said they would largely be counterproductive as they would allow Maduro and his allies to promote the image of the United States as an imperialist bully.

“There’s a whole cottage industry of anti-American leaders who will seize on anything to portray themselves as victims of the U.S., so this plays into the narrative and you have to be careful of that,” he said.

Maduro often accuses the United States of plotting invasions and coups. Washington has always denied that it had any military intentions against Venezuela.

When Trump was asked if the military options might include U.S. troops on the ground, he demurred.

“We don’t talk about it,” he said. “But a military operation ... is certainly something we could pursue.”