CARACAS, VENEZUELA — President Trump’s claim that he is not ruling out “military” action in Venezuela prompted a fresh wave of anti-American sentiment by government officials here, many of whom appeared to be leveraging the threat to stoke dark memories of U.S. interventionism in the region.
President Nicolás Maduro’s backers were apparently seeking to use Trump’s statement as a tool to unite Venezuelans — and the rest of Latin America — against a common enemy to the north.
Félix Seijas Rodriguez, director of the Delphos polling firm, estimated that less than 10 percent of Venezuelans would support military intervention in the country.
“We reject the cowardly, insolent, and vile threats of the President of the United States against the sacred sovereignty of Venezuela,” tweeted Delcy Rodríguez, Maduro’s former foreign minister. She is now president of the new all-powerful and pro-government Constituent Assembly created by a controversial vote last month that has been decried by opponents and foreign governments as fraudulent.
“Trump’s is the gravest and most insolent threat ever voiced against the homeland of Bolívar,” tweeted Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas.
On national television, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said: “This is an act of craziness; it’s an act of supreme extremism. There’s an extremist elite governing the United States.”
Trump told journalists Friday: “We are all over the world, and we have troops all over the world in places that are very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering and they’re dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.”
With all branches of Venezuela’s government and the armed forces now under his control, Maduro’s biggest weakness appears to be the nation’s crumbling economy and growing international isolation.
Yet Trump’s threats about a “military option” appeared to be dividing U.S. allies in the region, risking the unity of Latin American nations that are seeking to pressure Venezuela’s authoritarian government into changing course. Last week, 12 Latin American countries signed a resolution in Peru, condemning the Venezuelan government and backing its suspension from the region’s Mercosur trading bloc.
“The government of Chile rejects the threat of a military intervention in Venezuela,” tweeted Chile’s foreign minister, Heraldo Muñoz. He said that chancellors from many Latin American countries had agreed to reject any military steps.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Maduro ally, was quick to pounce on Trump’s words.
“Now the world knows that those who were against Maduro were only looking for a military intervention from the empire,” Morales tweeted.
Vicente Fox, a leading Trump critic and the former president of Mexico, said on Twitter: “Donald, get it together! Your mouth is quicker than your mind: Venezuela needs a way out, but NOT through violence. Take a dive into history, you’re wrecking the U.S. don’t wreck the world, just because you tweet faster than Maduro or Kim.”
After Trump’s remarks, Reuters quoted a Defense Department spokesman as saying, “the Pentagon has received no orders” on Venezuela. So far, U.S. steps have involved freezing assets and issuing travel bans on a growing number of senior Venezuela officials, including Maduro. Trump administration officials are also still considering other severe actions, including targeting Venezuela’s vital oil industry.
Yet rather than applying pressure, observers said, claims such as Trump’s largely serve to aid Maduro, allowing him to blame so-called American imperialism for Venezuela’s economic spiral.
“As we have seen with many Trump declarations, they’re said in the heat of the moment with no concrete basis,” said Mariano de Alba, a Venezuelan lawyer and international relations expert.
“The regime will take as much advantage of the juicy declarations as it can,” de Alba said. “And that won’t be hard at all.”
Four months of anti-government street protests in Venezuela have left more than 100 people dead and thousands detained.
Most leading opposition leaders have yet to respond to Trump’s warning, which appears to put them in a bind. Should they refuse to back a foreign military option, they could lose the support of a small minority within the opposition that favors it. If they back Trump’s threat, however, they risk being painted as traitors.
“We can’t depend on anyone to change our reality,” said Samuel Diaz, a Venezuela student leader and anti-government activist. “We have to depend on ourselves. And anyway, I think that anything that ends through military means tends to be replaced with something of the same violent nature. So I’m not in favor of it.”
The installment of a new special assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution came after a vote on July 30 that the opposition and many foreign nations decried as a power grab. In a move opponents fear will lead to more repression, the body has already moved to establish a ¨truth commission” to punish those responsible for “inciting” violence.
As recently as Thursday, Maduro — the anointed successor of leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 — said he wanted to have “respectful” relations with the United States. “Mr. Trump, here’s my hand,” he said in a meeting with members of the new constituent assembly.
After Trump’s remarks on Friday, the White House’s press secretary released a statement saying the president had rejected a request from Maduro for a phone call. “Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country,” the statement read.
Faiola reported from Miami.