U.S. President Donald Trump said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option” as Western nations boost pressure on socialist leader Nicolas Maduro to step down, while the troubled OPEC nation’s ally Russia warned against “destructive meddling.”
The United States, Canada and several Latin American countries have disavowed Maduro over his disputed re-election last year and recognized self-proclaimed President Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful leader.
Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse and the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, still maintains the powerful backing of Russia, China and Turkey, and the critical support of the military.
In an interview with CBS on Sunday, Trump said U.S. military intervention was under consideration.
“Certainly, it’s something that’s on the – it’s an option,” Trump said, adding that Maduro requested a meeting months ago.
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“I’ve turned it down because we’re very far along in the process,” he said in a CBS “Face the Nation” interview. “So, I think the process is playing out.”
The Trump administration last week issued crippling sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, a key source of revenue.
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Tens of thousands of people thronged the streets of various Venezuelan cities on Saturday to protest Maduro’s government.
France and Austria said on Sunday they would recognize Guaido if Maduro did not respond to the European Union’s call for a free and fair presidential election by Sunday night.
Russia, a major creditor to Venezuela in recent years and an ideological ally to Maduro, quickly urged restraint.
“The international community’s goal should be to help (Venezuela), without destructive meddling from beyond its borders,” Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Latin America department at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, told Interfax.
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Military in focus
Maduro in comments on state television promised peace for the country without specifically responding to Trump.
“In Venezuela, there will be peace, and we will guarantee this peace with the civil military union,” he said in the company of khaki and black-clad soldiers who were earlier shown carrying guns and jumping from helicopters into the sea.
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Venezuela’s ambassador to Iraq, Jonathan Velasco, became the latest official to recognize opposition leader Guaido this weekend. Air Force General Francisco Yanez in a video also called on members of the military to defect but there were no signs the armed forces were turning against Maduro.
Venezuela has as many as 2,000 generals, according to unofficial estimates, many of whom do not command troops and whose defection would not necessarily weaken the ruling socialists.
The police have also fallen in line with Maduro.
A special forces unit called FAES led home raids following unrest associated with opposition protests in January, killing as many as 10 people in a single operation in a hillside slum of Caracas.
Latin American governments with the help of the United States are seeking to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela, which is suffering medicine shortages, malnutrition and hyperinflation that has led millions to emigrate.
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Guaido on Sunday was expected to make an announcement regarding international humanitarian aid that would come through Colombia, Brazil and a Caribbean island and said he was counting on the armed forces to help bring it into Venezuela.
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“The USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) is working hard to help the people of Venezuela with humanitarian assistance such as these tonnes of Ready-to-Use Supplementary Foods for malnourished children,” USAID Administrator Mark Green tweeted on Saturday, posting photos of boxes piled up.
It is unclear whether Maduro’s government, which denies the country is suffering a humanitarian crisis, will let any foreign aid through.