Politics & Government

In Colombia, Pence lets Guaidó down easy on use of military force against Maduro

Vice President Mike Pence flew into Colombia on Monday as an anxious hemisphere waited to hear if the leader from America would back the Venezuelan opposition’s call to use “force” to bring humanitarian aid into the country.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who was barred from leaving Venezuela, had secretly crossed the border amid violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces for a special meeting Monday with Pence and regional leaders.

Meanwhile, Pence and some of the top specialists at the White House on Latin America, including the vice president’s advisor on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Landon Loomis, and the NSC’s top person on the region, Mauricio Claver-Carone, huddled in the front of Air Force 2 to hash out final details before the highly anticipated talks that would take place in the “Casa Privada” — or “Private House” — section of the Colombian foreign ministry.

What Pence ended up telling the young Venezuelan leader was not necessarily what he traveled so far to hear: Pence told Guaidó the Trump administration still believes in a peaceful resolution.

“We got a long way to go,” Pence said he told him. “I made it clear to President Guaidó that we’re going to continue to call on allies to join with us. We’re going to continue to isolate Maduro economically and diplomatically until democracy is restored.”

Indeed, Pence used his address Monday to call on the leaders of the 14-nation Lima Group to search for and freeze any assets of the Venezuelan state-run oil company, PDVSA, in their own countries, as the U.S. has done. He called on governments who had not formally recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president to do so. He pressed the leaders to transfer any Venezuelan assets in their countries still under President Nicolás Maduro’s name to the Guaidó government.

“It’s time,” Pence said.

Many in the region breathed a sigh of relief after fearing that Pence was going to support the call for military action. They had reason to believe he might after President Donald Trump’s aggressive speech to Venezuelan exiles in Miami, threatening Venezuelan generals, and the graphic tweets by Sen. Marco Rubio — who has served as Trump’s informal advisor on Latin American issues — featuring photos of dictators and strongmen being violently overthrown.

Michael Shifter, who as president of the Inter-American Dialogue has deep ties with many leaders across Latin America, said the aggressive rhetoric has raised concerns with leaders.

“They think it’s kind of counterproductive,” Shifter said. “It makes the generals pull together even more.”

Diplomats acknowledge that the strongest steps have already been taken and fear is growing that momentum against the government of Nicolas Maduro may be stalling.

But governments that oppose using force say there are diplomatic options yet to be considered. One diplomat whose government opposes any kind of military option said there have been conversations with U.S. officials about forcing Venezuelan diplomats loyal to Maduro to choose between remaining in their countries or returning home.

“Put yourself in their shoes. What would you do?” said one diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss conversations with U.S. officials. “Stay here or go back there. Going back there would be tough because in which conditions will you be received? You don’t know how many days the regime has. Also, what will happen to your family? It’s not only them who have to leave, the diplomats. It’s the diplomats and their whole family.”

Government officials opposed to using a military option also warn that, while doing so could splinter the multilateral coalition, it could also damage the goodwill that the United States has built by helping countries deal with the millions of Venezuelans who have fled across the hemisphere.

“Any action like that is going to reignite the anti-American, imperialist sentiment,” said another diplomat from the region, who agreed to speak anonymously because they were not authorized to address U.S. policy.

Guaidó pressed the international community to continue the humanitarian mission of sending food and medicine to Venezuela across the Colombian border.

“What we’re asking for is help,” Guaidó said.

Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido speaks at an emergency meeting of the Lima Group concerning Venezuela, at the Foreign Ministry in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. Vice President Mike Pence is at right. Martin Mejia AP

The debate over whether to use force to get the hundreds of tons of U.S.-provided food and medicine into Venezuela ratcheted up after Guaidó tweeted late Saturday that he would formally request to the international community to consider “all options” in order to liberate Venezuela.

Guaidó’s ambassador to the Lima Group, Julio Borges, left little doubt what that meant when he tweeted Sunday that he and Guaidó would “demand an escalation in diplomatic pressure and in the use of force against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro.”

Some countries would likely have supported any option the United States chose to back, but several others, including Chile, quickly announced they would not support such a measure.

Pence said ultimately it would be up to Trump, in consultation with allies, to decide under what conditions a military option would be appropriate.

Pence said Guaidó wanted to make sure that all options remained on the table.

“I assured him that they were, but we hope for better,” Pence said. “We hope for a peaceful transition.”

Using military force would be a drastic escalation, but José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials, said it needs to be discussed.

“We can’t just walk away,” Cárdenas said. “In order to sustain the pressure, you have to keep one-upping what the government does.”