Thursday 26 April 2018

Pence opts for balancing act on Venezuela

Mike Pence, right, is welcomed by Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos in Cartagena (AP)
Mike Pence, right, is welcomed by Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos in Cartagena (AP)

US vice president Mike Pence has tried to strike a balance between Latin American opposition to US military intervention in neighbouring Venezuela, and his boss Donald Trump's assertion that action is an option.

During a news conference, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said he told Mr Pence the US must not even consider military action in response to Venezuela's crisis, adding that the two countries were important allies.

"But since friends have to tell each other the truth, I have told Vice President Pence that the possibility of a military intervention shouldn't even be considered, neither in Colombia nor in Latin America," Mr Santos said.

"America is a continent of peace. It is the land of peace. Let us preserve it as such."

Mr Pence did not directly rule out the idea of US military action, but instead emphasised that America would work together with many nations in their "neighbourhood" to pressure President Nicolas Maduro so that Venezuela's democracy can be restored.

Several times Mr Pence said "but the president sent me here" to build on that partnership, adding: "As President Trump said a few days ago, we have lots of options for Venezuela."

The vice president railed against Venezuela's descent into crisis, saying, "the United States will not stand by" as democracy in the country "crumbles."

Mr Trump shocked many on Friday when he said he would not rule out a "military option" when it comes to dealing with Mr Maduro's attempts to consolidate power.

The United States accuses him of a power grab that has sparked deadly protests and condemnation across the region.

Mr Pence ssaid he was confident they could find a peaceful solution, but did not explicitly rule out a military option.

He and his wife Karen were greeted by a military honour guard on the tarmac at Rafael Nunez International Airport, where they were greeted by the Colombian minister of foreign affairs, the US ambassador to Colombia and the Colombian ambassador to the US, among other officials.

Later he met Mr Santos briefly at Casa de Huespedes Ilustres, telling him that Mr Trump sent greetings and thanks for his hospitality.

CIA director Mike Pompeo said Mr Trump, by raising the prospect of possible military action, was trying "to give the Venezuelan people hope and opportunity to create a situation where democracy can be restored".

Mr Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that Venezuela "could very much become a risk" to the US if it descended into further chaos.

Yet a Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee who calls himself "a pretty hawkish guy" expressed scepticism about the idea of American troops in Caracas.

"I have no idea why we would use military force in Venezuela. I'm open-minded to a reason, but at the end of the day, our military should be deployed when there's a national security interest that can be articulated to the American people," South Carolina's Lindsey Graham told Fox News Sunday.

"I don't see one in Venezuela in terms of the military force."

Mr Trump's national security adviser said the Trump administration wanted to get a handle on the current situation under Mr Maduro's embattled government and "understand better how this crisis might evolve".

"When you look at contingencies, when you look at what if - what if the suffering of the Venezuelan people increases by orders of magnitude - what more can we do with our partners in the region to protect the Venezuelan people and prevent an even greater humanitarian catastrophe?" HR McMaster told ABC's This Week.

"The president never takes options off the table in any of these situations and what we owe him are options."

Mr McMaster said the US would "continue a series of actions against the Maduro regime which aim to strengthen the opposition and to reach out to those who are members of this oppressive regime to tell them it's time to reconsider your actions and your support for this dictator."

The US has imposed sanctions against Mr Maduro and more than two dozen current and former officials in response to a crackdown on opposition leaders and the recent election of a pro-government assembly given the job of rewriting the country's constitution.

Venezuela's chief opposition coalition issued a restrained criticism of Mr Trump's talk of using a "military option".

The coalition rejected "the use of force or threats of applying the same in Venezuela on the part of any country" but its statement did not directly mention Mr Trump's remarks.

Mr Pence has other stops scheduled this week in Argentina, Chile and Panama, giving speeches and meeting with leaders.

He will also tour the newly-expanded Panama Canal.

AP

Press Association

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