“Military action is possible,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Fox Business Network. “If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.”
The top U.S. diplomat, however, reiterated that the U.S. would prefer a peaceful transition of power in Caracas from socialist President Nicolás Maduro to the self-declared interim president, Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly who is recognized by the United States and about 50 other countries as the legitimate leader of the South American country.
Pompeo’s signal that the U.S. could send troops to Venezuela drew a quick rebuke from Russia, a strong Maduro supporter.
Moscow said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Pompeo in a phone call that further “aggressive steps” by the U.S. in Venezuela would be “fraught with the most serious consequences.” The Russian diplomat denounced what he said was the United States’ “interference” in Venezuela’s internal affairs, calling it “a gross violation of international law.”
The U.S. State Department said Pompeo urged Moscow to end its involvement in Venezuela, telling Lavrov that Russian and Cuban actions there would destabilize it and could upend U.S.-Russian relations on a broader scale.
Pompeo told interviewers that Maduro, in the face of street protests against his government, was prepared to leave Venezuela for Cuba on April 30, but that Russia convinced him to stay to fight Guaidó’s call for the Venezuelan military to join him in a push to overthrow Maduro.
Maduro and the Russian Foreign Ministry denied the Maduro departure allegation, with Moscow saying the U.S. claim was part of its “information war” designed to demoralize the Venezuelan army and foment a coup.
Guaidó called for massive May Day street protests May 1—“the biggest in the history of Venezuela”—against the Maduro government. Rock- and Molotov-cocktail throwing protesters and government security troops clashed April 30, with authorities firing live ammunition, water cannons and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, killing one and injuring dozens.
Television footage showed one Venezuela National Guard vehicle running over demonstrators who were throwing rocks at the military. The government said one of its soldiers was hit by a bullet.
Tear gas smoke wafted across streets in Caracas May 1, with armor-clad police carrying shields to stand defiantly against rock-throwing protesters.
Maduro said he would lead his own May Day rally and claimed Guaidó’s attempted coup had been defeated.
Maduro congratulated the armed forces for having “defeated this small group that intended to spread violence through putschist skirmishes.”
“This will not go unpunished,” Maduro said in a television and radio broadcast.
He said demonstrators will be prosecuted “for the serious crimes that have been committed against the constitution, the rule of law and the right to peace.”
Thousands of demonstrators have joined the street protests after U.S.-backed Guaidó called for the military to reject Maduro’s rule and switch sides in a campaign he called “Operation Freedom.” Guaidó appeared April 30 alongside opposition politician Leopoldo López, who had been put under house arrest by Maduro, but said he had been “freed” by soldiers supporting Guaidó.
López posted a picture of men in uniform on Twitter, with the message, “Venezuela: the definitive phase to end the usurpation, Operation Liberty, has begun.” Later, López and his family went to the Chilean embassy to seek refuge, then moved to the Spanish embassy.
April 30 ended without any sign of defections within the military’s top ranks from Maduro to Guaidó. But Guaidó, the leader of the opposition-dominated National
Assembly appeared undaunted in a video message posted on social media later in the day.
Despite widespread food and medical shortages and a failing economy in Venezuela, the socialist Maduro regime has clung to power with the support of most of the country’s military. Venezuela’s two biggest creditors, Russia and China, also have continued to support Maduro.
Meanwhile, the United States has imposed sanctions on Caracas in an effort to curb its international oil sales.
Guaidó invoked the constitution to declare himself interim president in January after calling Maduro’s leadership illegitimate because of election fraud.
In a related development, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order late on April 30, banning all U.S. airlines from flying in Venezuela’s airspace below 7,000 meters until further notice, citing “increasing political instability and tensions.” The FAA also ordered all air operators in Venezuela, including private jets, to leave the country.