BEDMINSTER, NEW JERSEY – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday threatened military intervention in Venezuela, a surprise escalation of Washington’s response to Venezuela’s political crisis that Caracas disparaged as “craziness.”
Venezuela has appeared to slide toward a more volatile stage of unrest in recent days, with anti-government forces looting weapons from a military base after a new legislative body usurped the authority of the opposition-controlled Congress.
Two renegade officers behind the attack on the base have been captured, Venezuela’s military chief said Friday. Of the 20 uniformed men in the attack, two were killed and eight were captured.
Also Friday, Peru expelled Venezuela’s ambassador, the strongest action yet against Caracas from a Latin American government. Venezuela retaliated by ordering the head of the Peruvian Embassy to leave.
Peru also refused to accept a diplomatic protest over its hosting foreign ministers from 17 regional nations earlier in the week who refused to recognize the new loyalist-packed special assembly that is to rewrite the constitution.
Trump told reporters in an impromptu question-and-answer session, “The people are suffering and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
The comments appeared to shock Caracas, with Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino calling the threat “an act of craziness.”
The White House said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro requested a phone call with Trump on Friday, which the White House spurned, saying Trump will gladly speak to him when democracy is restored.
Venezuelan authorities have long said U.S. officials were planning an invasion.
Asked if U.S. forces will lead an operation in Venezuela, Trump declined to provide details. “We don’t talk about it but a military operation — a military option — is certainly something that we could pursue,” he said.
The comments conjured up memories of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America during the 20th century, when the United States regarded its “backyard” neighbors to the south as underlings who it could easily intimidate through conspicuous displays of military power.
The U.S. military has not directly intervened in the region since a 1994-1995 operation that aimed to remove from Haiti a military government installed after a 1991 coup.
Trump’s more aggressive discourse could be an asset to Maduro by boosting his credibility as a national defender.
“Maduro must be thrilled right now,” said Mark Feierstein, who was a senior aide on Venezuela matters to former U.S. President Barack Obama. “It’s hard to imagine a more damaging thing for Trump to say.”
The United States sanctioned Maduro and other Venezuelan officials in July after Maduro established a constituent assembly run by his Socialist Party loyalists and cracked down on opposition figures. The assembly’s election drew international condemnation and critics have said it removed any remaining checks on Maduro’s power.
Maduro says only continuing the socialist movement started by his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, can bring peace and prosperity to Venezuela, which is suffering from an economic collapse and widespread hunger.
Washington has not placed sanctions on the OPEC member’s oil industry, which supplies America with about 740,000 barrels per day of oil.
Venezuela has the largest known cache of weapons in Latin America, posing a concern for U.S. officials during the country’s mounting turmoil.
The United Nations Security Council was briefed behind closed doors on Venezuela in May at the request of the United States. At the time, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington was just trying to raise awareness of the situation and was not seeking any action by the 15-member Security Council.