U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up a four-nation tour of South America on Sunday at the Colombian-Venezuelan border, asking the man in the presidential palace in Caracas to step down for the good of his nation.
Speaking at a warehouse packed with food and medical supplies earmarked for Venezuela, Pompeo said leader Nicolás Maduro needs to quit blocking efforts to push aid into the country.
“Mr. Maduro, open these bridges, open these borders — you could end this today,” Pompeo said. “I hope that you care, I hope that you will care enough, when you see the horror and see the tragedy, to change your ways and to leave your country.”
The plea comes as months of escalating U.S. threats and international sanctions haven’t dislodged the 56-year-old Maduro from office.
Washington and more than 50 other nations recognize Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old head of congress, as the country’s only president, and are demanding that the “illegitimate” Maduro step down.
While Guaidó has been able to attract massive crowds and international support since assuming the presidency on Jan. 23, some supporters in Venezuela are losing hope that he can truly take control.
On Sunday, Laudelina Andrade, 54, trudged across the river that divides Venezuela from Colombia as a group of shirtless, sweaty men carried the contents of her house on their backs: chairs, two mattresses, a stove, a cabinet.
She’s giving all the furniture to a niece who left Venezuela months earlier because, she says, there’s no future in Venezuela amid power outages, water shortages and hyperinflation that decimates life savings.
Andrade said she was initially enthusiastic that Guaidó could bring change, but now she’s quit holding her breath.
“Whoever controls the military is the one who’s truly in power,” she said, referring to Maduro. “It’s nice that the world is supporting Guaidó, but so what?”
As Pompeo has traveled the region — visiting Paraguay, Chile and Peru — in recent days, he has repeated President Trump’s claim that “all options are on the table” when it comes to unseating Maduro, but the likelihood of a U.S. military intervention stills seems distant.
In an interview with Peru’s El Comercio newspaper, Pompeo seemed to hold out hope that Venezuelans themselves would topple Maduro.
“I don’t know how much longer the Venezuelan people will tolerate this,” he said. “My guess is not much.”
He also said Maduro’s decision to allow Cubans, Russians and Iranians into the country had only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis that is “destroying the lives of young people in Venezuela.”
“I’m very hopeful that Maduro will understand that his time is coming soon,” he said.
Maduro claims he has the right to rule until the next elections in 2025 and has accused the U.S. of backing illegal coups and assassination plots to end his socialist regime. Amid the escalating threats, he’s put the nation on a war footing, building up his internal militia — citizen soldiers that would, in theory, fight alongside the armed forces in the case of an invasion.
“Militias! Let us use love to defend this god-blessed land,” Maduro wrote on Twitter Sunday. “A rifle in one hand to defend the Fatherland and in the other hand a spade, to foment national production.”
Pompeo spent Sunday afternoon with Colombian President Ivan Duque touring the porous border near Cúcuta, which has become an escape route for Venezuelans fleeing hunger and political turmoil. In recent years, more than 3.4 million Venezuelans have left their country, many of them walking hundreds of miles as they try to reach Ecuador, Perú and beyond.
In recent months, U.S. House and Senate delegations have visited the region regularly to witness the Venezuelan exodus first hand.
On Sunday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza accused Pompeo and others of seeking out provocative photo-ops.
“It’s confirmed!” he wrote on Twitter, shortly after Pompeo visited the border. “Washington and Bogotá have ratified Cúcuta as the regular scenario for their most decadent and cheap spectacles.”
Just hours before Pompeo arrived at the bridge with his message of hope, Alexander Araujo, a 34-year-old telecom engineer from the Venezuelan city of Maracay, had just run out of it. On Sunday, he’d come to bring his wife and two small sons to join him in Bogotá, Colombia, where he has been working for the last nine months.
He said it now seemed unlikely that Guaidó and his enthusiastic supporters could push Maduro out of office.
“When Guaidó first appeared, there was a lot of hope for change,” Araujo said. “But now it seems like things are cooling off.”
Like others, he says he wishes Guaidó would harness the power of his massive rallies and directly take on Maduro — perhaps marching on the Miraflores presidential palace.
“It would be a bloodbath,” a woman sitting next to him says, “but we’re already dying every day.”
Guaidó has hinted on multiple occasions that “Operation Liberty” will be launched to seize the presidency, but it’s unclear if and when that might happen.
Hope for change in Venezuela has also become complicated by Maduro’s international backers, including Russia, China, Turkey and Cuba, said Imdat Oner, a former Turkish diplomat in Caracas and a senior policy analyst at the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
Pompeo’s “visit comes at a time when the external actors, particularly Russia and Iran, have explicitly increased their presence in Venezuela through sending deploying military officials and launching direct flights to Venezuela,” he said. “Pompeo’s visit will be a direct message to both these external actors and the Venezuelan people, implying that the U.S. administration is determined to step down the Maduro regime and stand by desperate Venezuelans.”
But the visit is also needed to keep the Venezuelan issue in the spotlight
“It is certain that Maduro and his external allies will feel less pressure as the international community loses its interest in the Venezuelan crisis,” Oner said. “In that sense, Washington aims at drawing the world’s attention to the region.”
On Monday, the 14-nation Lima Group of countries will be meeting in Chile. Once again, the bloc is expected to call for increased pressure on Maduro.
“It’s necessary to move on to a new phase and redouble our work so that new international actors join us in putting pressure on the dictatorship,” Chile’s Foreign Minister Roberto Ampuero said in a statement. “We must recover democracy in that brotherly nation. The scenario in Venezuela is worsening — the crisis is worsening.”