President Trump watched from the White House on Wednesday as his yearlong effort to oust Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolas Maduro hung in the balance with no clear outcome from civil unrest that reached a violent climax this week.
Aides said the president was following events in Caracas closely. National Security Adviser John R. Bolton convened a high-level meeting at the White House on short notice in mid-afternoon to discuss the administration’s next moves. Officials said military action was not imminent.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, traded blame in a phone call for destabilizing Venezuela.
“It’s this foreign presence that sits on top of the military, sits on top of the government, that makes it impossible for the people’s voice to be heard,” he said.
Those Cubans are also helping to thwart the Trump administration’s increasingly urgent calls for Venezuelan troops and top government officials to rally behind Juan Guaido, the opposition leader recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other nations as Venezuela’s interim president.
Russia, Venezuela and some in the media, including CNN, have accused Mr. Trump of fomenting a coup in Caracas. The White House spent much of Wednesday denying the charge, saying Mr. Maduro is an illegitimate ruler and that Mr. Guaido is the lawful leader who is calling on government forces to support him.
“It’s not a coup when the legitimate president gives orders to his government,” Mr. Bolton said. “What is a coup is the presence of Cuban and Russia directing the top affairs of the government of Venezuela.”
The U.S. has long had a hostile relationship with Venezuela. Socialist President Hugo Chavez gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2006 damning President George W. Bush as “the devil.”
Mr. Trump has taken an adversarial position against Venezuela since the start of his presidency, but his administration became more confrontational with Caracas after Mr. Maduro won reelection in May 2018 in voting widely considered fraudulent.
Shortly before that election, Mr. Bolton, a foreign-policy hard-liner, was appointed White House national security adviser. A day after Mr. Maduro won his questionable second term, Mr. Trump imposed economic sanctions against Venezuela to prevent Mr. Maduro from selling off some of his nation’s assets.
In the past year, Mr. Maduro has presided over a plummeting economy, soaring inflation, shortages of medicine, food and electricity, and an exodus of desperate refugees.
When Mr. Maduro was inaugurated for a second six-year term on Jan. 10, the U.S. and other countries recognized Mr. Guaido, leader of the National Assembly, as interim president.
The U.S. then imposed sanctions on state oil company PDVSA, preventing the collection of money from crude oil exports to U.S. refineries, shutting off the Venezuelan government’s primary source of income as Mr. Trump raised the pressure on Mr. Maduro to step down. Mr. Maduro cut diplomatic ties with the U.S.
The U.S. sent humanitarian aid to Venezuela on Feb. 8, but the shipments of food and medicine were turned back at the border with Colombia.
Mr. Guaido met with Vice President Mike Pence on Feb. 25. The next day, Mr. Trump advised the Venezuelan military to support Mr. Guaido or be prepared to “lose everything.”
“If you choose this path, you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out,” Mr. Trump said in a speech.
On March 21, Mr. Bolton said the Venezuelan government made a “big mistake” by detaining Mr. Guaido’s chief of staff.
On April 10, Mr. Pence called for the United Nations to recognize Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s leader.
As the street protests in Caracas were met by violence from government forces this week, the White House reiterated that military intervention was still on the table. But on a day of nationwide protests in Venezuela, Mr. Trump and his advisers emphasized again that they were seeking a peaceful transfer of power to Mr. Guaido.
“I wish I could talk about them because I think the American people would be proud of our capabilities,” he said.
“The fact is key figures like the defense minister, the chief judge of the Supreme Court, the head of the presidential guard, have been outed as people dealing with the opposition,” Mr. Bolton said. “And someday, the documents that they were prepared to sign with the opposition will become public. So if you’re Nicolas Maduro, can you look at your defense minister anymore and trust him? I don’t think so. I think Maduro is now surrounded by scorpions in a bottle. And it’s only a matter of time.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire reports.
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