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Department of Defense studying military options for Venezuela

In the aftermath of a faltering opposition uprising in Venezuela, the Trump administration is looking at imposing new individual sanctions against the Maduro government and also scrambling for ideas that can have a greater impact on the ground, including military options.

The White House is calling for relevant departments to produce more options for the president to consider on Venezuela. The National Security Council is pushing the Defense Department for military ideas and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is seeking ways to entice Russia to pull away from Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

Current and former officials recognize there are not many more options other than military action or some type of internal revolt.

“It’s more sanctions, military or straight up Venezuela flipping,” said a senior administration official on condition of anonymity. “And that’s a problem. All they have to do is delay, delay, delay and they’re still in power.”

Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Navy Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, met Friday morning and discussed different options to increase pressure on the Maduro government, including military participation.

“We had Secretary Pompeo over, Ambassador Bolton, a number of different folks just so we all stay stitched together in real time,” Shanahan told reporters Friday. “These discussions really are more so that just as things happen, it’s convenient that we’re all here in the same time zone, and almost the same zip code, so we can just converge, update everybody on that, we’ll probably get together in a few more days.”

Standing in front of armed military officers, Juan Guaidó, whom the United States considers the legitimate president of Venezuela, on Tuesday called for Venezuelans to join him for the “final phase” of an effort to take control of the Miraflores presidential palace. But Guaidó was unable to rally enough support from the Venezuelan military and after days of violence in street protests, Maduro has held control of the military and government offices.

Maduro demonstrated his power by appearing publicly Thursday flanked by soldiers.

“Something good came from evil, which is loyalty in full combat,” he told troops during an event broadcast on state television. “The troops were not afraid to say ‘no’ to the traitors, ‘no’ to the participants of an attempted coup.”

Loyalty is a value that you either have or you don’t … I know you will not fail the homeland.”

President Donald Trump and other top administration officials this week repeatedly said all options were under consideration, including military ones. There are several steps that can be taken short of ground troops, including covert operations and a naval blockade.

Shanahan would not go into detail into what was discussed but suggested that the options included involving the U.S. Navy.

“All options are comprehensive, but there is a lot of water nearby,” he said.

Faller briefed diplomatic and national security officials “on a wide range of military options, as the command continues to monitor activities on the ground in Venezuela,” a statement from Southern Command said.

“U.S. Southern Command stands with the people of Venezuela who are suffering at the hand of the illegitimate Maduro regime and remains prepared to support all options, when requested by senior leadership,” the statement said.

The increased attention to a military option, which has not been defined, is raising concerns across Washington and the region. Some diplomats and former Trump officials spoke out against the use of unilateral force and argued it’s time for a shift in strategy.

Fernando Cutz, a former acting senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said the United States has driven itself into a corner because of the “reckless rhetoric.”

“We’ve been talking this up so much that there is a real expectation from the Venezuelans on the ground that the United States is prepared to act,” Cutz said. “You haven’t left any room for interpretation on the rhetoric. You have been very, very direct, saying ‘military, military, military.’ So what do you do? Anything short of military action that leads to the restoration of democracy in the country would not be seen as a success.”

Some Trump allies are pushing the administration to take stronger steps, including authorizing covert operations and psychological warfare.

José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials, said there is a “crying need to undermine” the confidence of Maduro’s inner circle.

“We need out-of-the-box thinking,” Cárdenas said. “We need to engage with the intelligence community to find out what’s within their capability to do things that they do that will change the equilibrium. … We need to play mind games with this regime so they don’t know what is coming or going.”

The United States is also working to increase the pressure against Russia.

Trump said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone for more than an hour Friday, including about Russian involvement in Venezuela.

“He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela,” Trump said. “And I feel the same way, we want to get some humanitarian aid. Right now, people are starving. They have no water. They have no food.”

Pompeo called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday to increase the pressure. Pompeo is expected to speak with Russian officials again next week and senior administration officials are discussing what may be offered to entice Putin to abandon Maduro or at least get out of the way of the international effort to support Guaidó.

“At the end of day, if we can come to terms with Russia and they fall back on their support for Maduro that would be a huge deal,” the senior administration official said.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.
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