An off-the-cuff remark by Trump may have helped Venezuela’s slide ‘into dictatorship’

Within hours of President Donald Trump’s assertion the US had a “military option” in response to turmoil in Venezuela, governments in the region, which had been nearing consensus on confronting the Venezuelan government, repudiated the statement.

The president’s comments came two days before Vice President Mike Pence landed in Colombia to start a six-day tour of the region.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Argentine President Mauricio Macri — two of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s biggest critics — were quick to dismiss the idea of military intervention in their meetings with Pence (The US vice president cut short his trip and will return on Thursday).

Just as Trump’s remarks sent a chill through a region that was growing stronger in its condemnation of Maduro, the president’s words have left the Venezuelan opposition in an unfavorable position.

The main opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, said in a statement that it “rejected the use of force, or the threat to apply the same, on the part of any country on Venezuela.” Though it didn’t mention Trump specifically, but the need to make the statement put the opposition in an unfavorable position.

“It forced them to speak out against the threat of US intervention at a time when they’d much rather be focusing criticism on Maduro,” Geoff Ramsey, the associate for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider.

The opposition coalition has led near daily protests against the Maduro government since April, intensifying in July around the vote for a constituent assembly that has sweeping powers, including rewriting the constitution and permitting Maduro to rule by decree.

The opposition has gained international support, and the often harsh reaction by security forces — more than 120 people have been killed, many of them anti-government demonstrators — have brought condemnation on Maduro, but he has been able to ignore the protests, and the Venezuelans leading them have been worn down.

Other demonstrators blamed opposition leadership, who have struggled to articulate a coherent vision, for calling street protests too frequently.

Others have simply been worn down by continuous gatherings and clashes with security forces. “It’s the fault of the opposition leaders,” Ame, a 24-year-old single mother and frequent protester, told AFP. “We started out with them and they have practically abandoned us.”

Now the opposition coalition appears to be fracturing over a decision to participate in regional elections in October.

Donald Trump Mike Pence Marco Rubio Leopoldo Lopez Lilian Tintori Venezuela White House Oval Office
US President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Sen. Marco Rubio with Venezuelan opposition leader Lilian Tintori, February 15, 2017. Twitter/@realDonaldTrump

In addition to managing these internal divisions, the opposition will now have to work harder to avoid the appearance of favouring US military action, Ramsey said, and it would also likely have to reduce contact with the US State Department and high-level meetings with US officials.

“I think we can expect encounters like the Trump-Lilian Tintori meeting we saw back in February not to take place in the current context,” he added.

“Meanwhile Maduro continues to capitalise on the US threat to help rally his base and recover his slipping support among the Chavista coalition,” Ramsey told Business Insider. “This is red meat for them.”

Venezuelan government supporters began Monday with an “anti-imperialist” march in the capital where supporters chanted “Yankee, go home!” Maduro also called on Venezuelans to join military exercises slated for August 26 and 27. “Let’s see how the American imperialists like it,” he said.

Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, who called Trump’s statement “an act of craziness,” appeared on television Sunday to warn the US was after Venezuela’s oil reserves, which are the largest in the world. He also criticised the opposition’s response as ambivalent.

“This is a time of reflection,” Padrino said. “You are either a Venezuelan patriot, or pro-Yankee.”

Many of the officers in the upper echelons of Venezuela’s military are closely tied to the Maduro government, either by loyalty, indoctrination efforts by Maduro or predecessor Hugo Chavez, or by a desire for self-preservation in the face of possible prosecution over alleged abuses.

For those officers, the costs of breaking with the Maduro government were already high and are likely higher now that doing so could open them to accusations of complicity with US-backed anti-government plots.

Soldiers in the middle ranks and enlisted men have been more exposed to the country’s hardship, and the most likely cause for them to rise up against the government would have been a sense of desperation related to that, Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, told Business Insider in early July.

At that time, Velasco said there didn’t appear to be a cohesive insurgent movement within the military, despite dismay with conditions in the country.

Now, in the aftermath of Trump’s comments, any insurrectionary sentiment is likely to be chilled.

“I also think it’s clear that Trump’s remark makes it even less likely that disaffected elements military will break from Maduro,” Ramsey told Business Insider.

“The armed forces’ leadership is doing its best to equate turning against Maduro with allying with a foreign aggressor,” he said. “This makes it far harder to justify coming out against the government.”

The Venezuelan government and the constituent assembly convened by Maduro have yielded to outside pressure on at least one point: Civilians detained during the protests will face civilian trials rather than military ones. And, in addition to regional elections later this year, presidential elections slated for next year are still on, according to a Maduro ally.

But the assembly is also considering a law against “hate or intolerance” that will allow offenders to be jailed for up to 25 years, raising fears of reprisals against government opponents. A local rights group has said the government is already holding nearly 700 political prisoners.

Pence, the US vice president, has struck a more conciliatory tone while in South America, saying in Argentina that he was confident about a “peaceable” solution in Venezuela but country was “sliding into dictatorship and the United States would not stand by” while that happened.

“A failed state in Venezuela threatens the security and prosperity of our entire hemisphere and the people of the United States of America,” Pence said while in Colombia.