Vice President Mike Pence met with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Monday to reiterate the Trump administration’s “100 percent” support for Guaidó’s claim to be the rightful president of that country and to announce an additional $56 million in US aid to support the Venezuelan people.
Guaidó is challenging the legitimacy of sitting President Nicolás Maduro, and the standoff between the two leaders and their backers has plunged the already crisis-ridden country into new depths of chaos.
This past weekend, violent clashes between Maduro’s military forces and opposition supporters broke out on Venezuela’s borders over attempts by the pro-Guaidó opposition to bring US-backed food and medical convoys into the country.
Venezuela is in the midst of a dire economic crisis that has produced a humanitarian catastrophe, with millions unable to afford food and medicine. However, as Vox’s Amanda Sakuma explains, “Maduro has vowed to block any humanitarian aid from crossing the border into Venezuela” and says the aid is “a potential ‘Trojan horse’ that would lead to military intervention.”
The clashes left at least four people dead and hundreds injured.
This is the backdrop against which Pence’s meeting with Guaidó took place on Monday. It was the vice president’s first face-to-face visit with the opposition leader since the US decided to publicly back him as the rightful Venezuelan leader about a month ago. Dozens of other countries soon followed suit.
The Guaidó sit-down came on the sidelines of a meeting in Bogota, Colombia, of the Lima Group, a consortium of countries in the region that first came together in 2017 to find a solution to the crisis in Venezuela.
To President @jguaido of Venezuela, it is a great privilege to share this moment. I bring you and President of Colombia @IvanDuque a very simple message from @POTUS Trump & the United States of America: We are with you 100%. pic.twitter.com/iEaTyDvB7i— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) February 25, 2019
Pence used this platform to amp up pressure on the Maduro regime and rally regional allies to do the same. After his meeting with Guaidó, Pence announced additional US sanctions against four Venezuelan governors allied with Maduro. The US says these governors are joining in Maduro’s efforts to block humanitarian aid from crossing the border into Venezuela.
Those are just the latest economic penalties the US has placed on Venezuela, adding to aggressive sanctions against Venezuela’s state-run oil company last month.
Pence, in his address, also urged regional allies to freeze the assets of Venezuela’s oil company, the primary source of income for Maduro and his government. The US believes cutting off Maduro’s resources will ultimately cripple the regime, though some fear it may exacerbate the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela.
Pence made it clear, however, that the US will continue to back Guaidó: “President Donald Trump asked me to be here today to deliver a simple message to you and to the people of Venezuela: estamos con ustedes,” Pence said in Spanish, then translated to English: “We are with you, 100 percent.”
“We stand with you in America, along with all the nations gathered here today, and we will keep standing with you until your democracy and your libertad [liberty] are restored,” he continued.
In addition to the new round of sanctions, Pence said Monday that the US was pledging an additional $56 million for partners in the region, “as you come to the aid of the Venezuelan people fleeing from the deprivation and oppression of the Maduro regime.”
The US still says all options are the table, but Venezuela’s opposition is increasing its calls for force
Trump has insisted that all options are on the table when it comes to Venezuela, but Pence’s announcement Monday suggests the US is still looking to exhaust diplomatic and economic measures.
But Guaidó and the opposition have intensified calls for use of force. On Sunday, Julio Borges, a senior Venezuelan opposition leader, called for an escalation in diplomatic and political measures and the use of force against the regime after the violence at the border this weekend. Reports also suggested that Guaidó was prepared to encourage Pence to keep all “options on the table” during their meeting on Monday.
Others in the US have escalated their rhetoric too. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a longtime Venezuela hawk, tweeted photos of US-deposed dictators over the weekend, which many took as a direct threat to Maduro (one apparently made with little regard for the US’s troubled history in the region).
The increased saber-rattling comes after the clashes at the border over humanitarian aid — which ended up being something of a strategic failure. The opposition had been hoping the military would abandon Maduro’s plan for a blockade and let food and medical supplies through, but aside from a handful of defections, the armed forces have remained loyal.
Maduro has called the humanitarian convoys a front for a military intervention, and is otherwise basically trying to pretend like everything’s cool, even dancing salsa at a pro-government rally over the weekend.
But even though Maduro’s blockade was largely successful — only about two convoys got through the border between Brazil and Venezuela, according to the New York Times — it’s not exactly a great look for Maduro to be denying aid to his people.
This is the message that Guaidó and his opposition leaders are hoping to sell to regional leaders and the rest of the world.