CARACAS, Venezuela – President Nicolas Maduro asked the pro-government constitutional assembly Monday to investigate the opposition for allegedly supporting Donald Trump’s remarks on using military action to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis.
Addressing a rally of government supporters, Maduro said Trump’s comments were prompted by the failure of the opposition’s campaign to oust him after months of destabilizing protests.
Calling for “justice,” he said the truth commission set up by the constitutional assembly should investigate opposition leaders as “traitors” for not speaking out clearly against the U.S. president. Opponents who don’t cooperate in the investigation will face arrest, he warned.
“If they don’t show up on their own, we’ll go looking for them with handcuffs,” he told a few thousand government supporters, many of them state workers, gathered at the presidential palace.
The main opposition alliance rejected the use of military threats to resolve Venezuela’s crisis. But its statement Sunday didn’t mention Trump by name, instead blaming Maduro for converting Venezuela into a threat to regional stability and accusing him of ceding the country’s sovereignty and oil wealth to Cuba and other foreign powers.
Maduro also ordered two days of civilian-military exercises to dissuade a U.S. attack.
As Maduro and other senior officials sought to rally opposition to Trump, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence found himself doing damage control for the Republican leader in a previously scheduled visit to Latin America.
Seeking to highlight the worsening plight in Venezuela, he met Monday in Cartagena, Colombia, with a small group of Venezuelans who have fled their homeland. He described their stories as “heartbreaking” and before leaving he and his wife, Karen Pence, grasped hands with the group in a prayer circle as she prayed for “comfort to the Venezuelan refugees.”
Trump’s remarks last week that he wouldn’t rule out a “military option” for Venezuela shocked even allies in Latin America who thought the U.S. had turned its back on decades of big-stick diplomacy in the region. Pence’s last stop on the four-nation tour will take him to Panama, which saw the last U.S. military invasion in Latin America, the 1989 “Operation Just Cause” to remove military dictator Manuel Noriega.
“The phantom of military interventions in Latin America disappeared a long time ago and we don’t want it to return,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the staunchest U.S. ally in the region, said Sunday at a news conference alongside Pence.
Pence said Monday that Trump’s remarks were intended to put Maduro on notice that “we will not stand by while Venezuela collapses into dictatorship” and that “a failed state in Venezuela threatens the security and prosperity of our entire hemispheres and the people of the United States.”
Venezuelans are used to hearing Maduro accuse the U.S. of plotting his overthrow and even some government loyalists attending Monday’s rally didn’t take Trump’s threat literally. But others held up his comments as proof that the U.S. has been working hand-in-glove over the past four months of violent protests to oust Maduro, something the U.S. has denied.
Bento dos Santos didn’t attend Monday’s rally but watched the throngs file past him as he stood in line at a public notary on behalf of a client who pays him the equivalent of $1 to stand in line all day to certify documents. The 60-year-old said he needs the extra cash to supplement the paltry $20 a month he receives in a disability pension.
Although he blames Maduro for destroying the oil-rich economy, he still reveres the late Hugo Chavez and has no faith an opposition-led government would improve his welfare.
“If these guys are bad, the others are much worse,” he said.
Many in the opposition fear Trump’s remarks could give the government the perfect excuse to go after its opponents more than it already has.
In the past three weeks, a half dozen opposition mayors have been removed or arrested while the new constitutional assembly has removed the outspoken chief prosecutor and threatened to target the opposition-controlled congress.
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