U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he was considering military options as a response to the escalating crisis in Venezuela, a move the South American country quickly shot down as “craziness.”
Washington has slapped sanctions on President Nicolas Maduro and some of his allies, and branded him a “dictator” over his attempts to crush his country’s opposition. Venezuela has in turn accused America of “imperialist aggression.” But Trump’s latest comments were the first sign that he is mulling military intervention.
“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary,” Trump told reporters. “We have troops all over the world in places that are very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and they’re dying.”
Trump said Venezuela’s political crisis was among the topics discussed at the talks he hosted at his golf club in New Jersey with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. “Venezuela is a mess. It is very dangerous mess and a very sad situation,” Trump said.
But if any U.S. military contingency planning is under way, it must be in its early stages. A Pentagon spokesman, Eric Pahon, refused to elaborate on Trump’s comments, adding: “As of right now, the Pentagon has received no orders.”
Pahon cautioned that “the military conducts contingency planning for a variety of situations. If called upon, we are prepared to support whole-of-government efforts to protect our national interest and safeguard U.S. citizens.”
The White House said Trump would only agree to speak with Maduro “as soon as democracy is restored in that country,” after the Venezuelan leader requested a phone call with the American president.
Trump’s military warning came two days after his administration imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, targeting members of a loyalist assembly installed last week to bolster what Washington calls Maduro’s “dictatorship.”
General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defense minister, dismissed the threat as “an act of craziness, an act of supreme extremism.”
“There is an extremist elite governing the United States and honestly I don’t know what’s happening, what is going to happen in the world,” Padrino said.
The Venezuelan government had previously responded to the sanctions—which already targeted Maduro himself—by saying the U.S. was “making a fool of itself in front of the world.”
On Thursday, Maduro declared that Venezuela’s new Constituent Assembly holds supreme power over all branches of government, even over his position, and that its work—ostensibly to rewrite the constitution—would return “peace” to the country. But the United States and major Latin American nations allege that Maduro is using the body as a tool to quash dissent, by clamping down on the opposition and the legislature it controls.
The crisis has fueled the street demonstrations that have gripped Venezuela for the past four months. Nearly 130 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces. The protests have lost steam in the past week as security forces have stepped up repression and demonstrators have grown discouraged by the opposition’s failure to bring about change.
But hackers have taken up the torch. On Thursday, a group calling itself The Binary Guardians claimed responsibility for a massive cyberattack that cut mobile telephone service to seven million users. Two renegade officers behind an attack on an army base in the northwestern city of Valencia to raid its armory last weekend have been captured, Padrino said.
“Whoever betrays the nation, whoever takes up arms against the FANB will receive exemplary punishment,” he said, referring to Venezuela’s armed forces.
Opposition to Maduro among the oil-exporting country’s 30 million citizens increased during a long economic crisis that brought food shortages and hyperinflation to what was once one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries.