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Venezuela’s uprising against Maduro may put Trump's musings about military intervention to the test

Loyalist threatens to cut power at the US Embassy as diplomatic moment of truth arrives for Venezuela
US President Donald Trump and Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images; Reuters

  • Donald Trump has long mused about his power to force military intervention in other countries. That power - and rhetoric - might be tested soon as Venezuela's protests against its leader, Nicolas Maduro, grow.
  • On Tuesday, Trump and Mike Pence met with National Security Advisor John Bolton and a crop of Florida politicians (including Marco Rubio and Rick Scott) to discuss Venezuela.
  • Pence also delivered a message to the South American country, recognizing Venezuela's National Assembly as the only vestige of democracy in the country and calling Maduro "a dictator with no legitimate claim to power."
  • Maduro hit back, ordering a "revision" of diplomatic ties with Washington.

Venezuelans opposing Nicolás Maduro, with the verbal support of the Trump administration, are taking to the streets to protest their country's president as tensions rapidly rise between the South American country and the US.

In the last few days, Venezuelans have risen up against Maduro, who was sworn in earlier this month for a new six-year term following an election that many across the world considered a fraudulent power grab. What began as small-scale protests on Monday have now escalated to demonstrations that, by Wednesday, had left at least one protester dead.

The new demonstrations are being led by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, who on Tuesday was commended by US Vice President Mike Pence for his courage to stand up against Maduro. In a message to Venezuela, Pence said the US backs the Venezuelan opposition's move to oust Maduro.

Pence's message was part of President Donald Trump's administration decision to capitalize on the popular outrage in Venezuela to deliver a blow to Maduro's presidency. The president and Pence have met with Florida politicians, including Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, to discuss the situation in the country.

On Tuesday, Pence called Maduro a "dictator with no legitimate claim to power." In his message - delivered in English but with some Spanish sprinkled in between - Pence offered opposition leaders America's support, saying the protests are "a call for freedom."

"[Maduro] has never won the presidency in a free and fair election, and has maintained his grip of power by imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose him," Pence said.

In his message, Pence commended Guaidó for his "courageous decision" to "declare Maduro a usurper, and call for the establishment of a transitional government."

Multiple foreign government and organizations are recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela's leader. According to the Washington Post, Guaidó, 35, is trying to unite an opposition long-plagued by infighting to lead the largest wave of protests in the country since 2017. Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, has even recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's "interim president."

In response to Pence's remarks, Maduro said Tuesday night that "never before has an official of such high rank gone out in the name of his government to say the Venezuelan opposition should overthrow the government."

He then threatened diplomatic action against the United States "within hours." As of Wednesday afternoon, Venezuela has yet to announce any steps.

The fragile relationship between the US and Venezuela's current government might test Trump's constant assertions that he has the power to force military intervention in foreign nations. For months, Trump has played with the idea of invading Venezuela, saying in August of 2017 that the US has "many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary."

According to the Guardian, the day before he made those comments, Trump took his top officials by surprise by asking why the US could not intervene to remove Maduro from power on the grounds that Venezuela's political unraveling posed a threat to the region.

"We're all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away, Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying," Trump reportedly said at the time.

In August 2018, Trump met with Rubio - a close adviser to his when it comes to Latin American policy - to discuss Venezuela. Of the meeting, Rubio said he believed there was a "very strong" argument that "Venezuela and the Maduro regime have become a threat to the region and to the United States."

"I believe that the armed forces of the United States are only used in the case of a threat to national security," he said.

Read more: Officials keep talking about intervening in Venezuela, and it's drawing an ominous comparison

After Tuesday's meeting, Rubio left the room hopeful that Trump will now take a step further to intervene in Venezuela's uprising.

"We encouraged the president today to follow through with what he's already declared, which is that Maduro is illegitimate," Rubio said. "The next logical step is to recognize the president of the National Assembly as the rightful president."

A US military intervention in Venezuela, led by the Trump Administration, would come at a time when South America is shifting to the right and support for Maduro's socialist regime runs low.

Venezuela's dire economic situation has pushed many of its citizens to bordering countries whose governments are being pressured to take action. According to Axios, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's new right-wing president who has drawn plenty of comparisons to Trump, said Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos that his election proves that "left-wing ideology will not prevail in the region."

Similarly, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez said "anything that will help liberate Venezuela has our support," including recognizing Guaidó as president.

But, up until last summer, experts weren't so sure that a military intervention would solve anything. Last September, Shannon O'Neil, a senior fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said though government repression and extreme poverty in Venezuela warrant a push for political change, "US military intervention is not the way to do it."

"Venezuela isn't Grenada or Panama, the two Latin American countries invaded by the US during the closing days of the Cold War," she said.