Trump’s Talk of ‘Military Option’ in Venezuela May Bolster Maduro’s Hand


“We are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away,” Mr. Trump said. “Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

Venezuela’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, called the statement an “act of madness.”

The foreign ministry said Mr. Trump’s “bellicose” and “reckless” remarks were intended “to drag Latin America and the Caribbean into a conflict that would permanently alter the stability, peace and security in our region.”

The current tensions stem from a plan by Mr. Maduro to consolidate power in the country. On July 30, he held a vote to install a new body, called the Constituent Assembly, that would give his ruling leftist party the right to rule the country unopposed for up to two years while rewriting the Constitution.

As the vote approached, Mr. Trump warned repeatedly that he would not tolerate the move, and he issued sanctions against members of Mr. Maduro’s government. When the vote occurred, the White House imposed sanctions on Mr. Maduro and on Friday refused to take a call Mr. Maduro had wanted to place with Mr. Trump.

Few analysts believe the United States has any real intention of using its military against Venezuela.

And while the president may have intended his remarks as a warning meant to restrain the Venezuelan government, analysts said, they could have the opposite effect, strengthening Mr. Maduro’s hand as he cracks down on dissent and blames Washington for his country’s economic and domestic strife.

“These are empty threats,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, a Latin America analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And since they are empty threats, Maduro faces no new consequences by taking a tough stand, both rhetorically and against the opposition.”

Even before Mr. Trump’s remarks, the government’s crackdown on dissenters was gaining steam. On Wednesday, David Smolansky, an opposition mayor of a district in Caracas, the capital, was given a 15-month sentence for disobeying orders to shut down protests. He joined four other opposition mayors given similar sentences.

And on Friday, the government’s new Constituent Assembly was moving ahead to establish a so-called truth commission, which would serve as a new tribunal to investigate crimes. Many members of Mr. Maduro’s ruling party have said they aim to use the body to put protesters on trial, many of whom they call “terrorists” and accuse of receiving support from foreign governments.

Ms. O’Neil said Mr. Trump’s words might also help Mr. Maduro abroad. So far, the Venezuelan leader’s actions have been widely derided by his neighbors, including countries like Argentina and Brazil that were once close ideological allies of Venezuela.

But Mr. Trump, who is perhaps even less popular in the region, could threaten that solidarity by reprising the warlike language of past decades, when the United States toppled Latin American leaders and the State Department referred to the region as “America’s backyard.”

“These threats will be seen through the historical prism,” Ms. O’Neil said.

Venezuela’s leftist allies in the region were quick to seize on Mr. Trump’s comments.

“Now the world knows those who were against Maduro only wanted military invention by the empire,” Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, who supports Mr. Maduro, wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning.

While Venezuela’s president has yet to respond to Mr. Trump’s remarks, his son, also named Nicolás, said on Saturday during a meeting of the Constituent Assembly, “If the United States sullies the soil of our homeland, our rifles will reach New York and we will take the White House.”

Eva Golinger, an American lawyer who was a close confidante of Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, said Mr. Trump’s statement would be seen as an escalation of the aggressive American messages against the country’s leftist movement. The United States, for example, did not immediately condemn a failed coup against Mr. Chávez in 2002, and in 2015 it called Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat.”

“But most of that intervention was more discreet and almost clandestine,” Ms. Golinger said. “Trump has taken this a big step forward.”

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