WASHINGTON — With Venezuela still in turmoil after last week’s failed military coup headed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the Trump administration is scrambling to find a way to dislodge President Nicolas Maduro. Some are talking openly about using the U.S. military to assist Guaidó and his ragtag opposition, and that has lawmakers in both parties worried.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration is preparing for the option of using American armed forces for more than merely supporting the drive to bring humanitarian aid to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans on the brink of starvation.
“We have a full range of options that we’re preparing for,” Pompeo said on ABC's "This Week," adding they include “diplomatic options, political options, options with our allies, and then ultimately a set of options that would involve use of U.S. military.”
Venezuelan forces are on alert. Over the weekend, Maduro spoke directly to the nation’s military and told them "to be ready to defend the homeland with weapons in your hands if one day the U.S. empire dares to touch this territory, this sacred earth."
On Capitol Hill, the Trump administration’s getting some support for deploying the military in combat missions to support Guaidó and the opposition.
“This is our chance to get Maduro out, and we’ve got to do it”
"Where is our aircraft carrier?" tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime war hawk who has the president’s ear. While it’s still unclear how much support there is in Congress for escalating U.S. involvement to that level, last week did bring a change in tune from some other high-profile Republicans.
“This is our chance to get Maduro out, and we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to do everything we can,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a freshman member elected with Trump’s strong backing and placed on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters at the Capitol. “Right now, I think with the genocide going on, we’ve got to look at using our military to get in there.”
Still, Scott, who recently visited the region and witnessed starving women and children in the streets, says the first order of business is helping feed the Venezuelan people and keeping the unrest from spreading beyond Venezuela.
“I want to start with getting the humanitarian aid in,” Scott said. “This is not just impacting, right now, Venezuelans. It’s impacting Colombians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Brazilians – a lot of them.”
“Air support for what?”
Even the threat of deploying the U.S. military in Venezuela is unbelievable to many lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“What? What? Air support for what?” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) asked VICE News when told of the increased GOP calls for military intervention. “What is air support? Supporting what?”
Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, says there’s strong bipartisan support for the regional diplomatic efforts Secretary Pompeo has been leading, but he says there’s not much appetite for getting involved in another war.
“I think a solution to the Venezuelan crisis is best reached not through American military intervention but through peaceable means — public demonstrations, repeated expressions by the Venezuelan people of their yearning for a legitimate government,” Coons said. “I think for us to introduce any American military component to Venezuela would be a significant mistake.”
It’s not just Democrats opposing U.S. intervention. Even some Republicans are cautioning the administration to move slowly and to think through the potential repercussions.
“I agree all options have to be on the table, but leaping to military intervention in the absence of a thorough understanding of the consequences would be a mistake, in my view,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told a small group of reporters at the Capitol last week. “It’s my fear that at the first civilian casualty at the hands of a U.S. service member, we could see mass protests in capitals beyond Venezuela.”
Gaetz serves on the Armed Services Committee and gets regular briefings from the Seven Special Forces Group, the part of the U.S. military charged with overseeing Latin America.
He says there are voices in Venezuela calling for American military assistance, but he cautions those aren’t the only voices the administration needs to be listening to.
“The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well in the United States”
“The popularity for intervention exists in Venezuela but in very few to no other places in Latin America, and so we’ve got to worry about that spillover effect,” Gaetz said.
Currently dozens of U.S. allies have recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, but even Democrats who have supported the administration’s diplomatic efforts are warning that the coalition could fracture if the U.S. military gets involved.
“Any U.S. mention of military action pushes all our European and American allies away from us,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told VICE News at the Capitol.
But Republicans brush aside the criticisms of military intervention, especially after Maduro was allegedly preparing to flee to Cuba last week before he was urged by Russian officials to stay put, according to the State Department.
“They may not like it, but it’s a fact of life. Maduro made a huge mistake … with taking advice from the Russians,” Foreign Relations Chair Jim Risch (R-Idaho) told VICE News at the Capitol. “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well in the United States. Every president has embraced it. I do. Everybody here does. The Russians have gone way too far on this.”
This new, more hawkish posturing in public has Democrats freaking out, though.
“It scares the hell out of me. We’ve always worried that there was a military option that the White House was developing,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “What a disaster for hundreds of thousands of American troops to be in Venezuela.”
Cover: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo smiles during a discussion on the major foreign policy priorities of the State Department in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2019. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)