President Donald Trump said Friday that he wouldn't rule out military action against Venezuela in response to the country's descent into political chaos following President Nicolas Maduro's power grab.
Speaking to reporters at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, Trump bemoaned the country's growing humanitarian crisis and declared that all options remain on the table — including a potential military intervention.
"We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option," Trump volunteered, adding, "A military operation and military option is certainly something that we could pursue."
Trump's comment mark a serious escalation in rhetoric for the U.S., which has up until now stressed a regional approach that encourages Latin American allies to escalate pressure on the Maduro regime. Hours before Trump's comments, a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity stressed that approach while briefing reporters on Vice-President Mike Pence's upcoming trip to the region later this week.
Venezuela's defence minister called Trump's talk of a military intervention an act of "craziness" and "supreme extremism."
Gen. Vladimir Padrino, a close ally of Maduro, said, "With this extremist elite that's in charge in the U.S., who knows what will happen to the world?"
The White House later released a statement saying it had rejected a request from Maduro to speak by phone with Trump. The statement said, "Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country."
The Trump administration has slapped a series of sanctions against Maduro and more than two dozen current and former Venezuelan officials in response to a crackdown on opposition leaders and the recent election of a constitutional assembly charged with rewriting the country's constitution.
But even as the list of targeted individuals has grown longer, promised economic sanctions have yet to materialize amid an outcry by U.S. oil companies over the likelihood that a potential ban on petroleum imports from Venezuela — the third-largest supplier to the U.S. — would hurt U.S. jobs and drive up gas costs.
Trump's comments are sure to focus new attention on 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.
The trip was already sure to be dominated by discussion of Venezuela, with Pence expected to call on the leaders to continue to pressure the Maduro government and encourage others in the region to do the same.
But Trump's comments are likely to upend the conversations, with leaders potentially pressing Pence for reassurance that Trump won't go through with his military threat.
"The Vice-President's trip will highlight the divide between the past and present of Latin America," said Jarrod Agen, a Pence spokesman, in a statement sent before Trump's comments. "Venezuela represents the past, with the failed path of tyranny and oppression, but Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama represent the future of freedom, opportunity and prosperity."
Trump's threat of military intervention in Venezuela also seems to contradict the advice of his top national security adviser. Citing the resentment stirred in Latin America by the long U.S. history of military interventions in the region, General H.R. McMaster said he didn't want to give Maduro any ammunition to blame the "Yankees" for the "tragedy" that has befallen the oil-rich nation.
"You've seen Maduro have some lame attempts to try to do that already," McMaster said in an interview that aired last Saturday on MSNBC.
Rather than send in the Marines, McMaster said it was important for the U.S. and its neighbours to speak with a single voice in defence of Venezuela's democracy.
"It's important for us to place responsibility for this catastrophe on Maduro's shoulders. He is the one who has caused it, and he's the one who's perpetuating it," he said.
Almost since Maduro took office in 2013, he has been warning of U.S. military designs on Venezuela, home to the world's largest oil reserves.
But most Venezuelans tended to shrug the accusations off as diversionary tactics of an unpopular leader. One website even emerged to keep track of the multiple conspiracy theories spread on state media and Maduro's frequent harangues against Washington.
But Trump's comments that he won't rule out a "military option" in Venezuela may yet validate those claims in the eyes of some government supporters.
In eastern Caracas, the centre of months of deadly anti-government protests, residents reacted with a mix of disbelief and frustration with Trump's remarks, which they fear will embolden the weakened Maduro and distract attention from his abuses.
"Of course we don't support violence, but look at all the violence we're already suffering," said Irali Medina, an office administrator, pointing to the spot where a university student was killed recently by a tear gas canister fired by national guardsmen controlling protesters.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Mark Wright said the Defence Department continuously conducts contingency planning for possible military actions all around the world. "Our job is to be prepared and be able to offer those options to the president," he said.
Still, a senior U.S. official said the Pentagon is unaware of any coming military action in Venezuela. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.