President Donald Trump’s statement on Friday that the US was considering “military options” in response to ongoing turmoil in Venezuela elicited surprise throughout the region.
It apparently came without any consultation with the US military, which said soon that it had received no instructions from the White House about military action against Venezuela.
Trump’s remarks don’t appear to have been coordinated with Vice President Mike Pence, who arrived in Colombia on Sunday for a tour of the region.
During his visit, Pence appeared to try to thread a rhetorical needle, keeping pressure on Venezuela without explicitly affirming Trump’s statement about military force.
“The president also remains confident that working with all of our allies across Latin America we can achieve a peaceable solution to the crisis facing the Venezuelan people,” Pence said. “Working with free nations across this hemisphere the United States will continue to bring the full measure of American economic and diplomatic power until democracy is restored in Venezuela.”
Pence’s statement, like that issued by the Pentagon on Friday night, looked designed to ratchet down ire stirred by Trump’s statement, which conjured unwelcome memories of US intervention in the region and seemed to be a gift to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has frequently warned of alleged US-backed interference.
“The rest of the U.S. Government is moving quickly to disavow Trump’s comments, without explicitly saying so and embarrassing him,” said Mark Feierstein, special assistant to the president and senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs during the Obama administration.
“Pence and U.S. diplomats will have to continue emphasising that the United States is committed to using diplomatic tools, targeted sanctions, and other economic measures, as necessary,” Feierstein told Business Insider. “Otherwise, the Trump Administration would run the risk of upsetting the momentum toward stronger Latin American action on Venezuela.”
The vice president said Trump had dispatched him “to continue to marshal the unprecedented support of countries across Latin America to achieve by peaceable means the restoration of democracy in Latin America.”
The US is considering “the full range of additional economic sanctions,” Pence said, echoing the White House’s assertions that “all options are on the table” to penalise the Maduro government.
But Pence also said, “A failed state in Venezuela threatens the security and prosperity of our entire hemisphere and the people of the United States of America.”
“What Pence has got to do is back off enough so that these countries can move ahead without looking like they’re lackeys of the US,” Charles Shapiro, former US ambassador to Venezuela and now president of the Atlanta-based World Affairs Council, told The Wall Street Journal. “That’s what Venezuela has already said they are. Venezuela says, ‘I told you so.'”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, speaking alongside Pence on Sunday, reiterated the close ties between his country and the US but said, “Since friends have to tell them the truth, I’ve told Vice President Pence the possibility of military intervention shouldn’t even be considered.”
“We are intent on looking into other measures some of which are already underway and others to be implemented in the future,” Santos added.
Peru, which has been one of Maduro’s fiercest critics, released a statement on Saturday rejecting the use of military force. Mexico, which has been vocal in its rebuke of Maduro, said the situation in Venezuela could not be solved with troops. Brazil said rejecting violence was the “basis of democratic cohabilitation.”
The Venezuelan opposition coalition “rejected the use of force, or the threat of the same, on the part of any country on Venezuela,” though its statement did not mention Trump specifically. Numerous Venezuelan civil-society groups signed a statement rejecting “any international action that means more suffering for the people of Venezuela.”
Maduro — whose request for a meeting with Trump after the US president’s remarks was rejected by Washington — made hay of Trump’s remarks.
Monday started with an “anti-imperialist” march in the capital, Caracas, with supporters chanting “Yankee go home!”
Maduro called on Venezuelans to join military exercises on August 26 and 27: “Everyone has to join the defence plan, millions of men and women, let’s see how the American imperialists like it.”
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, who called Trump’s statement “crazy,” appeared on television in front of troops, including one holding a shoulder-fired missile, to warn the US was after Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world.
“This is a time of reflection,” Padrino said. “You are either a Venezuelan patriot, or pro-Yankee.”
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