Trump administration all in for Guaidó in Venezuela’s ‘delicate moment’

The Trump administration, recognizing the precarious moment in Venezuela, left no doubt about its support for activist leader Juan Guaidó and his call for an uprising to remove Nicolás Maduro from power.

Top officials from the White House, National Security Council and State Department all weighed in on the day of reckoning.

National Security Advisor John Bolton, speaking at the White House Tuesday afternoon, emphasized that President Donald Trump still wanted a peaceful solution, but also warned of dire consequences if Maduro’s forces attacked civilians.

“If this effort fails they will sink into a dictatorship from which there are very few possible alternatives,” Bolton said. “It’s a very delicate moment.”

Trump has been monitoring developments “minute by minute,” according to Bolton. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also publicly backed Guaidó’s call for the people of Venezuela to take to the streets.

“To Juan Guaido, the National Assembly and all the freedom-loving people of Venezuela who are taking to the streets today in #operacionlibertad—Estamos con ustedes!” Pence tweeted.

Early Tuesday morning, Guaidó called on the Venezuelan people to join him at the Carlota military base for the “final phase” of an effort to take control of the Miraflores presidential palace. In a video, Guaidó stood alongside activist Leopoldo Lopez and a small group of heavily armed troops.

One senior U.S. administration official urged caution and said it was unclear how many troops Guaidó has control over and whether it was enough to overthrow Maduro supporters - some known as collectivos - who have been called to the presidential palace to defend the government.

“We will be absolutely inflexible, radical in the defense of the Bolivarian revolution and the well-being of our people,” Diosdado Cabello, one of the most powerful figures in the Maduro regime, said on State television.

Bolton said the administration had been “well-informed” about Guaidó’s actions and warned Maduro and his supporters against the use of force on innocent civilians. “We feel very strongly about it,” he said.

He named Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s supreme court president Maikel Moreno and Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala, director of the Venezuelan National Police’s Special Actions Force, as three top Venezuelan officials who have been speaking with the opposition for months “to make good on their commitment” to help transition power from Maduro to Guaidó.

“All agreed that Maduro had to go,” Bolton said. “They need to be able to act this afternoon and this evening to be able to bring other military forces to the side of the interim president.”

Accusing the Cuban government of helping prop up Maduro, Trump warned via tweet of “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions” against Cuba if it does not cease military operations in Venezuela.

“Hopefully, all Cuban soldiers will promptly and peacefully return to their island!” Trump tweeted.

Asked whether the United States would take military action if Maduro’s forces harmed civilians, U.S. officials continue to warn that all options are available.

“I don’t think anyone should be fooled that if the president makes that decision, if he chooses a military option, that the United States military has the capacity to execute that option in a way that will achieve the way that the president intends,” Pompeo told CNN.

The international community is watching closely. One diplomat from the region told McClatchy there was still confusion over the situation and it will be critical to watch how the confrontation escalates and how the Maduro government responds.

Colombian President Ivan Duque urged the “people of Venezuela to be on the right side of history, rejecting dictatorship and the usurpation of Maduro.”

Many are watching to see what the 30 nations of the Organization of American States does and whether the United Nations-like hemispheric organization calls for an “extraordinary meeting” of ambassadors to address the situation.

“We welcome the adhesion of the military to the Constitution and to the President in charge of #Venezuela @jguaido,” OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro responded in a tweet on Tuesday. “The fullest support for the democratic transition process is needed in a peaceful manner.”

Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said, “we’re aware of the situation and ready to provide [humanitarian] assistance if needed.”

Officials at U.S. Southern Command said they are also monitoring developments and are in close contact with interagency partners.

“At the present time, U.S. Southern Command’s mission remains unchanged,” said Colonel Armando Hernandez, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command.

Another defense official told McClatchy that the Pentagon had been expecting May Day protests but that Guaidó’s announcement that he had the backing of Venezuela’s military took the building by surprise.

There had not been a request from U.S. Southern Command to position U.S. military assets nearby, such as the hospital ship USNS Comfort, the defense official said on condition of anonymity. The Norfolk, Va.,-based Comfort treated thousands of Venezuelan refugees during port visits to Honduras, Colombia and Ecuador in December.

New unreleased polling data, sponsored by the Albright Stonebridge Group, shows the Venezuelan public by a 2-to-1 margin wants the Venezuelan military command to support Guaidó over Maduro.

“The question now is whether the armed forces will act in accordance with the wishes of the Venezuela people,” said Mark Feierstein, the former White House National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama, who oversaw the poll.

In Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took over leadership of the island from Raúl Castro, came to the defence of Maduro and charged Guaidó with leading a “a coup movement in Venezuela that aims to fill the country with violence.”

“The traitors who have placed themselves in charge of this subversive movement have used troops and police with weapons of war on a public road in the city to create anxiety and terror,” he said.

José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials, sees no chance of a full scale U.S. invasion of Venezuela, but said the United States could deploy targeted support, including launching cruise missiles against Maduro communication networks in support of Guaidó depending on how the situation evolves.

“The United States’ response will be solely in the eventuality of bloodshed,” Cárdenas said. “If you get into a situation where military is fighting military, then you may see some limited U.S. actions to disrupt the Venezuelan military system for communication among the Maduro loyalist. That could be electronic attacks to their computer systems. It could even mean taking out the command and control centers of the military obviously to disrupt their ability to coordinate.”

Bolton emphasized that Trump continues to believe that a peaceful resolution is possible.

“We have been planning for what we call the day after, the day after Maduro for quite some time,” Bolton said. “Those plans obviously we are moving ahead on, trying to refine them here in these recent days because things might move quickly.”

Alex Daugherty contributed to this report

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.