Venezuela will defend itself from the “madness” of Donald Trump, its defense minister said, a day after the U.S. president said he’s considering a military option in response to the escalating political and economic crisis in the oil-producing nation.
“It is an act of madness, it is a supreme act of extremism,” Vladimir Padrino said Saturday in statements to Venezuela’s state broadcaster VTV.
Venezuela has been subject to increasing sanctions since President Nicolas Maduro convened a national assembly designed to rewrite the country’s constitution and consolidate his power. Trump’s statement on Friday suggested the U.S. may get more deeply involved, raising the specter of U.S. intervention in Latin America that could spread turmoil in the region.
The foreign ministry, in an email, called Trump’s statements “warmongering” and said they represent a "direct threat to Venezuela’s peace, stability, independence, territorial unity, sovereignty and right to self-determination."
The top U.S. diplomat in Caracas, charge d’affaires Lee McClenny, was asked to come to the federal building known as the Yellow House on Saturday, the Associated Press reported. The U.S. and Venezuela have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Trump weighed in on Venezuela’s turmoil during a brief news conference Friday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. “Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they’re dying,” he said. “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.”
The president declined to say whether the U.S. would seek to overthrow Maduro. He gave no specifics on what the U.S. would do militarily or whether it would act unilaterally.
Vice President Mike Pence flies to South America on Sunday, with stops planned in Colombia, Argentina and Chile over several days. On the eve of Pence’s arrival, the government of Colombia rejected Trump’s hint at intervention in a statement condemning “military measures and the use of force.”
Trump’s comment also triggered a negative response from a fellow Republican, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
“No, Congress obviously isn’t authorizing war in Venezuela,” Sasse, a regular critic of the president, said in a statement. “Nicolas Maduro is a horrible human being, but Congress doesn’t vote to spill Nebraskans’ blood based on who the Executive lashes out at today.”
Ben Rhodes, former President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, also weighed in. He said in a tweet that Trump’s comment may have the unintended effect of giving Maduro a rallying point for his supporters, even as he tries to suppress opposition to his policies.
“Hard to overstate how much this is a gift for Maduro who will play up threat from the US to seek support from VZ and rest of Latin America,” Rhodes tweeted.
U.S. military action in Venezuela also risks rekindling regional resentments stemming from past interventions.
“If the U.S. were to act militarily it would undoubtedly be unilateral and thus widely condemned by even our regional allies,” said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, a Washington public policy group. “Personally, I don’t see how this help with a solution to the Venezuela crisis.”
For nearly two decades, U.S. presidents have served as something of a rhetorical punching bag for Venezuela’s ruling socialists. George W. Bush was dubbed “Mr. Danger,” ridiculed for what was perceived as his reckless foreign policy, and Obama was constantly accused of waging an “economic war” that caused rampant food shortages and spiraling inflation.
After the late Hugo Chavez rose to power, Yankee bashing became a standard practice when government officials wanted to whip up public support at home and abroad. Leaders point to U.S. backing of South American dictators, military interventions, even coups across the region and the Cuban embargo set up during the height of the Cold War.
As U.S. has increased pressure on Venezuela, the Maduro government has taken some tentative steps to open a channel of communication. Maduro wants to establish a dialog with Trump, Venezuela’s Foreign Relations ministry said on Twitter. In a subsequent post, the ministry said Maduro instructed Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza to seek a “conversation” between the two heads of state.
Maduro had said on Thursday night that he would be willing to meet with Trump at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.
“If he’s so interested in Venezuela, here I am, the head of his interest,” Maduro said on state television. “Here is my hand, here is my word.”
The White House said in a statement that Trump “will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country.” Maduro ignored U.S. calls to restore democracy and instead “has chosen the path of dictatorship,” it added.
A military move by Trump could hinder U.S. efforts to build a coordinated international response to Maduro’s undermining of democracy in his country, including among Venezuela’s neighbors.
“Frankly, it is irresponsible on his part,” Andrea Saldarriaga Jiménez, Assistant Director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in Washington, said of Trump’s statements in a phone interview. “It undermines all of the diplomatic efforts that the countries have done this week.”
Saldarriaga Jiménez said Maduro now has “a narrative to further push for the anti-imperialism message that he has out there.”
Last week, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said in an MSNBC interview that while “democracy is over right now in Venezuela,” he didn’t think there would be any outside military intervention.
Trump delivered his warning to Venezuela on the same day he threatened to strike back militarily to provocations by North Korea.
The U.S. has imposed a series of sanctions on people associated with Maduro, freezing their assets in the U.S. and blocking anyone in the U.S. from doing business with them. The deepening political crisis and the threat of additional sanctions has worsened Venezuela’s economic turmoil. That has resulted in shortages of food and medicine.
Venezuela, a founding member of OPEC, has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and is the third-biggest source of crude for the U.S.
Among the penalties still on the table is a ban on imports of Venezuelan oil, which would devastate its economy. Four Republican senators this week wrote to Trump warning that sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil sector would harm the U.S. and “have the unintended consequence of diverting oil currently processed in the U.S. to China.”
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