President Donald Trump threatened to take “military action” against Venezuela Friday, a comment that is sure to roil the divided South American nation and alarm its neighbors.
Trump made the statement during a press 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 our own hemisphere.
“Venezuela is a mess,” Trump said, adding. “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 provocative comments come as Washington has stepped up sanctions against Venezuelan officials in recent weeks and just a day after President Nicolás Maduro said he wanted to talk to Trump to overcome both nation’s differences.
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Venezuela is a mess.
President Donald Trump
Trump was surrounded by several members of his cabinet, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and National Security Council Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster.
“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary,” Trump said.
They were the strongest words delivered by Trump since the administration called him a dictator and froze his assets following 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 been gone from bad to worse in recent months as the country has plummeted into a deepening economic crisis amid rising inflation and alarming homicide rate. In recent months, anti-government demonstrations have broken out daily as desperate citizens taken to the streets to protest the lack of even the most basic goods.
On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Central and South America where the Venezuela security situation is expected to be discussed.
The State Department referred questions about possible plans being considered to the White House. The Pentagon hasn't received any orders regarding Venezuela as of this point, a spokesman told McClatchy, referring all further questions to the White House.
Critics quickly slammed Trump for needless 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 U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser under President Barack Obama. “Maduro will grab on to threat from Trump.”
Among Venezuela-watchers in Washington, the reaction ranged from laughter to disbelief on 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 now vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas.
Some Venezuelans may see hope in the comments, but Farnsworth said they will largely be counterproductive as it allows Maduro and his allies to promote the image of the United States as imperialist bullies.
“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.”
Others thought the president was showing strength in the face of a worsening crisis.
“The president is obviously growing impatient with a dangerous thug holding 30 million people hostage, with cowardly snipers murdering hungry democracy protesters,” Roger Noriega, a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs told McClatchy. “I don't think any decent person would blame him for considering options for putting an end to the people's suffering by putting an end to Maduro. Period.”
Maduro often accuses the United States of plotting invasions and coup attempts. Until now, Washington has always denied 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.”
Jim Wyss reported from Bogota, Colombia.