The U.S. government is acting fast to bolster Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s government.
On Thursday, the Trump administration announced it will send $20 million in humanitarian assistance to the interim president, yet another show of defiance to Nicolás Maduro a day after the U.S. cited the Venezuelan constitution as reason to recognize the leader of Maduro’s opposition as the rightfully elected interim government.
“I think the very first step is to take care of the Venezuelan people,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a leader on Venezuela in Congress who worked with the Trump administration in its decision to recognize Guaidó.
“That’s why this initial $20 million investment on the part of the United States, which we think will also attract international partners to contribute, and putting it in places where it can reach people inside Venezuela, is the most immediate need. It’s the first request that came from the interim president and it’s the best thing we can do in the short term.”
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Guaidó requested the assistance, which would include food, medical supplies “and perhaps even the sending of a hospital ship,” in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Rubio said the U.S. government’s relationships with Colombia and Brazil, which both recognized Guaidó and share land borders with Venezuela, will be “very useful” in getting aid into the right hands inside the country.
“Hopefully they’ll name a bilateral ambassador so that person will be in the U.S. in a position to begin controlling assets of the regime that are currently in the U.S.,” Rubio said. “He’s [Guaidó] got to call valid elections as part of his constitutional mandate as interim president, so he’ll need international support in carrying that out.”
Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, said the administration stands ready to provide Guaidó with financial and humanitarian assistance in order to assure a successful transition, which would happen in a matter of weeks. Rubio said elections must occur in the next 45 days according to Venezuela’s constitution.
Trujillo did not know how many personnel were at the U.S. embassy in Venezuela or what steps were being taken to ensure their safety, including whether dependents were being evacuated. On Wednesday, Maduro gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave Venezuela.
“If there is any threat to their safety, it will be addressed accordingly,” Trujillo said.
Rubio said the U.S. has the capability and means to remove diplomats quickly if necessary, though he warned of unspecified “severe” consequences if Maduro forces diplomats out.
“The president needs to call elections promptly, the military’s got to support this process,” Florida Sen. Rick Scott said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to keep our diplomats safe and start the process of rebuilding the country.”
But Rubio and Scott said that using U.S. resources to build democratic institutions is not necessary because the framework of a functioning legislature and judiciary already exists in Venezuela. Scott also said he talked to Colombian President Iván Duque this week about Colombia’s humanitarian needs as the country continues to handle thousands of Venezuelan refugees.
“We’re not there to build a country, they have institutions,” Rubio said. “The National Assembly is the democratically elected, legitimate body, they have a Supreme Court in which the legitimate members were thrown out and replaced by cronies of Maduro, but the institutions and the future of Venezuela belongs to the Venezuelan people. We’re just part of a coalition of countries around the world that want to see the restoration of democratic constitutional order.”
The OAS held an emergency meeting in Washington on Thursday, but did not vote on recognizing Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela. However, 16 countries approved a declaration recognizing Guaidó as president. Meanwhile, the U.S. has requested an open U.N. Security Council meeting on Saturday morning to discuss the ongoing situation in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s OAS representative, Asbina Marin, accused the U.S. of running a clandestine operation to overthrow a legitimately elected government and turning Venezuela into its “slave.” She called those countries that supported the United States its “puppets.”
“This is a mafia government treating Latin America like its backyard,” Marin said.
Most elected officials in the United States from both parties supported Trump’s decision to recognize Guaidó over the past 24 hours, though Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a liberal Democrat who recently announced a 2020 presidential bid, said “the United States needs to stay out of Venezuela.” The Democratic Socialists of America, which counts U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib among its members, said “a U.S.-driven coup is totally unacceptable.”
After describing the Maduro government as a regime that deals in torture, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said the decent thing would be for the Maduro government to step aside.
“It shouldn’t offer more death,” Almagro said. “It shouldn’t spew more suffering.”
Rubio said the Venezuelan military’s decision Thursday to back Maduro is concerning, but that high-ranking generals will not order their troops to inflict violence on Venezuelan citizens because many of their soldiers are sympathetic to the opposition. In the meantime, the U.S. will continue providing international aid to Guaidó’s government and working with international institutions to get more nations to recognize Guaidó.
“The safety and security of our diplomats is critical. Growing our international coalition and what each of them can provide is important,” Rubio said. “But by far 1 A, B and C is the humanitarian assistance.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Lesley Clark contributed to this report.