Trump warns of potential US ‘military option’ in Venezuela

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 9:24am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2017, 9:51pm

President Donald Trump said he’s considering a military option in response to the political and economic crisis in Venezuela, raising the spectre of a US intervention in Latin America that could spread turmoil in the region.

Trump’s statement suggested the US may get more deeply involved in Venezuela, which has been subject to increasing sanctions since President Nicolas Maduro convened a national assembly designed to rewrite the country’s constitution and consolidate his power.

“Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they’re dying,” Trump said during a brief news conference on Friday at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.”

The president declined to say whether the US would try to overthrow Maduro. He gave no specifics on what the US would do militarily or whether he would act unilaterally. Vice-President Mike Pence is heading to South America over the weekend, with stops including Colombia, Argentina and Chile.

The South American country’s Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino called the idea crazy.

“This is an act of craziness, an act of supreme extremism,” Padrino told state television.

US military action in Venezuela risks rekindling regional resentments stemming from past interventions. It also may have the unintended effect of giving Maduro a rallying point for his supporters as he tries to suppress opposition to his policies.

For nearly two decades, US presidents have served as something of a rhetorical punchbag for Venezuela’s ruling socialists. George W. Bush was dubbed “Mr Danger”, ridiculed for what was perceived as his reckless foreign policy, and Barack Obama was constantly accused of waging an “economic war” that caused rampant food shortages and spiralling inflation.

After the late Hugo Chavez rose to power, Yankee bashing became a standard practice when government officials wanted to whip up public support at home and abroad. Leaders point to US support for South American dictators, military interventions, even coups across the region and the Cuban embargo set up during the height of the cold war.

As the US has increased pressure on Venezuela, the Maduro government has taken some tentative steps to open a channel of communication. Maduro wants to establish a dialogue with Trump, Venezuela’s foreign ministry said on Twitter.

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In a subsequent post, the ministry said Maduro instructed Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza to seek a “conversation” between the two heads of state.

Maduro had said on Thursday night that he would be willing to meet Trump at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.

“If he’s so interested in Venezuela, here I am, the head of his interest,” Maduro said on state television. “Here is my hand, here is my word.”

Trump will agree to speak to Venezuela’s leader “as soon as democracy is restored in that country”, the White House said on Friday night.

“The United States stands with the people of Venezuela in the face of their continued repression by the Maduro regime. President Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country,” the White House said in a statement.

A military move by Trump could hinder US efforts to build a coordinated international response to Maduro’s perceived undermining of democracy in his country, including among Venezuela’s neighbours.

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“Frankly, it is irresponsible on his part,” Andrea Saldarriaga Jimenez, Assistant Director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Centre in Washington, said of Trump’s statements in a phone interview. “It undermines all of the diplomatic efforts that the countries have done this week.”

Saldarriaga Jimenez said Maduro now has “a narrative to further push for the anti-imperialism message that he has out there”.

Last week, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said in an MSNBC interview that he didn’t think there would be any outside military intervention in Venezuela.

Trump delivered his warning to Venezuela on the same day he threatened to strike back militarily to provocations by North Korea.

The US has imposed a series of sanctions on people associated with Maduro, freezing their assets in the US and blocking anyone in the US from doing business with them. The deepening political crisis and the threat of additional sanctions has worsened Venezuela’s economic turmoil. That has resulted in shortages of food and medicine.

Venezuela, a founding member of OPEC, has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and is the third biggest source of crude for the US among the penalties still on the table is a ban on imports of Venezuelan oil, which would devastate its economy.

Additional reporting by Associated Press