US President Donald Trump has said he is considering military options as a response to the escalating crisis in Venezuela, a move the South American country quickly shot down as “craziness”.
Washington has slapped sanctions on President Nicolas Maduro and some of his allies, and branded him a “dictator” over his attempts to crush his country’s opposition. Venezuela has in turn accused America of “imperialist aggression”.
But Trump’s latest comments were the first sign that he is mulling military intervention.
“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary,” Trump told reporters on Friday.
“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.” General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defence minister, dismissed the threat as “an act of craziness, an act of supreme extremism”.
“There is an extremist elite governing the United States and honestly I don’t know what’s happening, what is going to happen in the world,” Padrino said.
Trump said Venezuela’s political crisis was among the topics discussed at the talks he hosted at his golf club in New Jersey with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
“Venezuela is a mess. It is very dangerous mess and a very sad situation,” Trump said.
But if any US military contingency planning is under way, it must be in its early stages. A Pentagon spokesman, Eric Pahon, refused to elaborate on Trump’s comments, adding: “As of right now, the Pentagon has received no orders.”
Pahon cautioned that “the military conducts contingency planning for a variety of situations. If called upon, we are prepared to support whole-of-government efforts to protect our national interest and safeguard US citizens”.
The White House said Trump would only agree to speak with Maduro “as soon as democracy is restored in that country,” after the Venezuelan leader requested a phone call with the American president.
Trump’s military warning came two days after his administration imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, targeting members of a loyalist assembly installed last week to bolster what Washington calls Maduro’s “dictatorship”.
The Venezuelan government had previously responded to the sanctions — which already targeted Maduro himself — by saying the US was “making a fool of itself in front of the world”.
On Thursday, Maduro declared that Venezuela’s new Constituent Assembly holds supreme power over all branches of government, even over his position, and that its work — ostensibly to rewrite the constitution — would return “peace” to the country.
But the United States and major Latin American nations allege that Maduro is using the body as a tool to quash dissent, by clamping down on the opposition and the legislature it controls.