The uncomfortable but inevitable question that dogged Vice President Mike Pence everywhere he went in Latin America last week will trail him to Miami on Wednesday: Is President Donald Trump really considering potential military action in Venezuela?
Pence tried over and over again to say no — without actually uttering the word or outright contradicting Trump — during his recent swing through Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama, where regional allies publicly denounced the notion of any U.S. intervention.
The vice president’s cleanup tour will conclude Wednesday in Doral, home to the largest Venezuelan immigrant community in the U.S. In private meetings with local Venezuelans, and in remarks at a neighborhood church, Pence is expected to say that the White House remains committed to punishing President Nicolás Maduro’s government for systematically dismantling the South American country’s democracy.
But exactly what the punishment from the U.S. might entail remains unclear, a month after Trump promised “strong and swift economic actions.”
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Behind the scenes, the Trump administration has continued to debate its best move, with the eager-to-dialogue State Department clashing with the more hawkish White House and National Security Council. But matters became much more complicated on Aug. 11, when Trump made his casual remark about a possible “military option” against Maduro. The comment divided regional allies who had at long last come around to the U.S. position that Venezuela had become a dictatorship.
Though few Latin American leaders took Trump seriously — Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Maduro’s most vocal critic in the region, put the chances of U.S. military action at “none” — they were nevertheless forced to spend Pence’s trip chiding Trump, rather than agreeing to pressure Maduro. Some foreign ministers who had appeared willing to impose sanctions said privately that Trump’s comment made it more difficult for them to do so.
Maduro’s opposition is also split over what the U.S. should do, now that Trump has raised the specter — painfully familiar to Latin Americans — of deploying the U.S. military.
And Maduro has seized the opportunity to rail against the U.S. and other regional powers he accuses of conspiring to oust him.
“I have a package of measures that will defend us from the commercial, petroleum and financial blockade that Donald Trump is going to declare against Venezuela,” Maduro said in a nationally televised speech Tuesday. “We’re ready. And I’m counting on the determined people of Venezuela and the governments and people of the world, because nobody is going to drown Venezuela — and nobody will make us kneel.”
Even so, Maduro insisted he’s still interested in having a direct line of communication with Trump, who announced earlier this month that he wouldn’t speak to his counterpart in Caracas until democracy was restored in Venezuela.
“Unfortunately, we are at the worst moment in terms of our relationship with the United States,” Maduro conceded.
The international skittishness caused by Trump’s words has required a sort of diplomatic cooling-off period for the U.S. and its allies to regroup. Pence could have used Wednesday’s trip to unveil new sanctions against Maduro loyalists or the Venezuelan economy, but he might not make any announcements.
Instead, he will likely try to reassure not only local Venezuelans but also most of the Western Hemisphere that the White House will take thoughtful, deliberate steps moving forward. Further sanctions could come as early as the end of the week, though similar timelines have been extended in the past.
Venezuela installed a new all-powerful legislative body earlier this month, effectively overruling the opposition-held parliament, the country’s last remaining check on Maduro’s power. The furor surrounding the constituent assembly, which was elected under suspected fraud, quieted down somewhat after security forces repeatedly repressed Venezuelan street protests.
The Trump administration, which declared Maduro a “dictator” and as recently as Friday condemned the constituent assembly’s assumption of legislative powers, has been forced to turn its attention to Afghanistan. In a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn’t get a single Venezuela question.
Meantime, Latin American diplomats fear that Maduro’s opponents are now staying at home, waiting for a U.S. invasion.
Ramón Muchacho, the opposition mayor of the Caracas suburb of Chacao who fled to Miami after the country’s high court sentenced him Aug. 8 to 15 months in prison and barred him from elected office, said Tuesday that Venezuelans had no choice but to assume Trump’s threat had at least some truth behind it.
“What it showed was that there’s a large vacuum,” Muchacho told the editorial boards of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. “[Trump] says he doesn’t rule out military action and no one else in the continent has been able to tell him, ‘Look, Mr. President, there’s no need for military intervention because there’s another plan.’ There is no plan.”
Ernesto Ackerman, the head of the local advocacy group Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens who was invited to see Pence on Wednesday, said he’s become convinced that international action is the only way for Venezuela to return to democracy.
“The minimum I hope we’ll hear from Pence is some type of indication on where we stand with Latin America,” Ackerman said. “It’s going to be very difficult for Venezuelans with cardboard shields and young people on the street to get out of this alone. But before a military intervention, I’d support more sanctions.”
Pence will likely visit the U.S. Southern Command headquarters, both to get briefed and to share his impressions from the Latin America trip. He then plans to hold a private “listening session” with Venezuelans at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, where he will also deliver a speech.
But Pence will not find unanimous support in Miami even for increased sanctions.
“It looks great in PR terms, but the truth is it actually hurts the Venezuelan people, because it hurts the economy, and it gives the government someone to blame for the disaster they’ve created in Venezuela,” said Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan-American political consultant and registered Democrat.
“I don’t think that looking to the U.S. as a savior is the solution.”
Miami Herald South America correspondent Jim Wyss contributed to this report from Bogotá, Colombia. Columnist Andrés Oppenheimer also contributed.