US ready to invade Venezuela - 'All options on table' to oust Maduro's 'illegitimate mafia state'
The Pentagon yesterday refused to rule out military intervention on Venezuela's border, a day after John Bolton, the US national security adviser, was photographed carrying a notepad that read: "5,000 troops to Colombia."
Patrick Shanahan, the acting defence secretary, was asked repeatedly whether the notes indicated a deployment. "I'm not commenting," he said. "I haven't discussed that with Secretary Bolton."
Asked on Monday, Mr Bolton refused to rule out the use of US troops in Venezuela. "The president has made it clear on this matter that all options are on the table," he said.
The US military has about 200 troops in Colombia, which was among the first to follow the US lead last week in recognising Juan Guaido, the "interim president", as Venezuela's legitimate leader.
Colonel Rob Manning, the Pentagon spokesman, said the number of military personnel in Colombia remained unchanged, and Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Colombia's foreign minister, said Bogotá had not been informed of any increase in a US military presence.
"We are not aware of the significance or the reason" for Mr Bolton's notes, he said.
The drum beat began last Saturday with President Donald Trump's recognition of Mr Guaido, and grew louder in the intervening six days.
Over the weekend, Australia and Israel joined 20 countries to accept Mr Guaido as the interim president. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, told the UN security council the time is now" to move to oust the "illegitimate mafia state" of Nicolas Maduro.
The US yesterday raised the state department's tourism warning to "do not travel" - putting Venezuela in the same category as only 12 countries worldwide, among them Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Mr Pompeo also announced yesterday that Mr Guaido had full control of Venezuelan assets in US federal banks.
Mr Guaido is petitioning the Bank of England to prevent Mr Maduro getting his hands on £1bn (€1.14bn) in gold held in London vaults. Venezuela, which is struggling to provide basic services, has about $8bn (€7bn) in foreign reserves around the world.
On Monday, the US imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company - a move designed to cripple the Maduro regime financially and sway the military to defect.
Steven Mnuchin, the US Treasury Secretary, yesterday said more economic pressure could be applied, while ensuring "medicine and other humanitarian goods can still get through".
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin - who backs Mr Maduro - said the Kremlin shared the view of the Venezuelan government that the sanctions were illegal and a tool of unfair competition on part of the US.
Russia shored up its alliance with Venezuela as the second-largest lender to Caracas after China, supplying tanks and Kalashnikovs and investing in the country's main asset, its oil resources.
As recently as last month, Mr Maduro announced during a visit to Moscow that Russia would invest $6bn (€5.25bn) in Venezuela's oil and mining sectors. Reports have surfaced of hundreds of mercenaries from the secretive Russian private military contractor Wagner being deployed to Venezuela.
Moscow denied this but Vladimir Rouvinski, a political commentator in Colombia, said: "Everything suggests Russian mercenaries have been in Venezuela for a while, although most likely far fewer than reported by media."
Meanwhile, Tarek William Saab, Venezuela's attorney general and a Maduro loyalist, put a travel ban on Mr Guaido and froze his assets - symbolic gestures unlikely to have a significant impact.
"I'm not dismissing the threats, the persecution, but we're here, we're continuing to do our jobs," said Mr Guaido.