As Vice President Mike Pence tries to play down his boss’ fiery rhetoric during a four-nation tour of Latin America this week, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is playing up President Donald Trump’s military threats — using them to rally the masses in his troubled nation and, perhaps, rationalize a political crackdown.
Venezuela held “anti-imperialist” rallies across the nation Monday to protest Trump’s assertion last week that he wouldn’t rule out a “military option” to force democratic change in the socialist country.
Talking to a crowd of red-clad supporters, Maduro called the veiled threat one of the greatest provocations “in the history of Venezuela’s international relations.” And he ordered the mobilization of “millions” of troops and volunteers on Aug. 26-27 to drill for a potential U.S. invasion.
“Venezuelan soil is sacred,” Maduro said, “and it should never be touched by an imperialist Yankee boot.”
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Monday’s pro-government rallies were some of the largest in recent months and come after Trump’s off-the-cuff comments jarred a region that finds the mere suggestion of U.S. military intervention toxic.
On Monday, Pence flew from Cartagena, Colombia, to Buenos Aires, as he continued a tour that will also take him to Chile and Panama. Talking to the press on Sunday, Pence reassured allies in the hemisphere that Trump believed a “peaceful solution” was possible for Venezuela and that the bellicose talk was simply an expression of Washington’s “determination.”
But Maduro suggested he may capitalize on the statements to hammer opponents. On Monday, he asked authorities to investigate the “traitors” who have “come out and asked for intervention...and supported Donald Trump’s threats.”
Maduro also found propaganda fodder in another U.S. event: Saturday’s deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Maduro told the crowds that “white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan and fascists were marching with Nazi flags...and with shields that were similar to the shields that guarimberos [anti-government protesters] use in East Caracas.”
Venezuela has been hammered by more than four months of protests that have left more than 120 dead. Frequently, the young men and women protesters carry makeshift shields and sticks as they face off against riot police — often with deadly consequences for the demonstrators.
“Behind the white supremacists is the power that has taken over the White House and the venues where decisions are made by the North American imperialists,” Maduro said.
While Maduro singled out the State Department, CIA and Pentagon, he didn’t mention one of his favorite targets: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
On Sunday, the Miami Herald reported that U.S. intelligence had received uncorroborated evidence that Venezuelan hardliner Diosdado Cabello may have hired Mexican hitmen to assassinate Rubio.
Cabello, a member of the National Constituent Assembly, or ANC, an all-powerful body that will rewrite the constitution, spoke extensively during Monday’s rallies but didn’t address the allegations.
Monday’s demonstrations also doubled as campaign rallies for upcoming regional elections. On Saturday, the ANC, in a surprise move that highlights its sweeping power, moved up gubernatorial and state-legislative races from Dec. 10 to sometime in October.
The government said the change was necessary to quell the violence — even as the opposition said the move was meant to short-circuit their primary process.
Maduro said the election, and the opposition’s reluctant participation, is proof that democracy is thriving in Venezuela.
“Mike Pence says that Venezuela is a dictatorship and that there’s no democracy here,” Maduro said. “But it turns out we will be having our 22nd election in two months.”
“That’s why I want to talk to Trump on the telephone and explain to him ‘Mr. Trump you are being tricked,’” he said. “‘Trump, everything they tell you about Venezuela is a lie.’”
Trump has said he won’t talk to Maduro until democracy is restored in the country.
Follow me on Twitter @jimwyss