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Trump, in risky gambit, ratchets up pressure on Venezuela as tensions flare at the border

President Trump speaks about the crisis in Venezuela during a visit Monday to Florida International University in Miami, where he warned about the spread of socialism. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Trump pressed ahead Friday with a potentially risky gambit that he can help evict what he calls a disastrous socialist dictatorship in Venezuela, dispatching a U.S. special envoy and other officials to the scene of a standoff with President Nicolás Maduro’s security forces.

Elliott Abrams and other State Department officials accompanied an airlift of U.S. humanitarian aid to the Colombian border in a provocative partnership with Maduro’s political rival as tensions rise over the internal power struggle in Venezuela. The Trump administration has not said whether it will attempt to deliver the aid by force Saturday, the day when opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is supported by the Trump administration, has said the relief supplies will cross into Venezuela.

Trump has repeatedly said that military action is an option, including in remarks Monday to Venezuelan exiles in Miami, setting up a paradox for a president who has argued that the United States wastes money and lives when playing global policeman.

Venezuelan soldiers opened fire Feb. 22 on civilians attempting to keep open a segment of the southern border with Brazil for deliveries of humanitarian aid. (Video: Reuters)

But Trump has seized on Venezuela as an opportunity to condemn socialism and potentially restore democracy — a stance popular with his political base — after elections last year were widely denounced as fraudulent.

Having leaned so heavily into the conflict, Trump risks looking weak or ineffective at home and abroad if the Maduro regime survives in the face of U.S. opposition.

The Trump administration emboldened Guaidó to declare himself Venezuela’s rightful leader last month and has helped rally international diplomatic support behind him. The White House has not said what it will do if Guaidó’s movement collapses in chaos or a bloodbath.

The administration raised the stakes for Saturday’s showdown by massing additional aid at a critical border crossing on the same day that Venezuelan forces fired on anti-government protesters elsewhere, killing two.

Late Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders condemned the deaths and warned in a statement that “violation of human rights by Maduro and those who are following his orders will not go unpunished.”

“The United States strongly urges the Venezuelan military to uphold its constitutional duty to protect the citizens of Venezuela,” Sanders said. “The Venezuelan military must allow humanitarian aid to peacefully enter the country. The world is watching.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also justified the aid delivery in a television interview Thursday.

“This weekend we will attempt to deliver what are now hundreds of tons of humanitarian assistance that the American people, our taxpayers, have generously paid for, now have moved into the region,” Pompeo told NBC’s “Today” show. “The humanitarian crisis is enormous. That’s always an American interest to try and make sure that we feed those that the — in this case — the government causes.

Pompeo also argued that Venezuela is strategically important to the United States.

“We have security interests, too. This is in our region,” he said. “We don’t want this to be a Cuban puppet state in Venezuela.”

Vice President Pence will travel to Colombia on Monday to meet with Latin American leaders and express the United States’ “unwavering support for interim President Juan Guaidó and highlight the Venezuelan people’s fight for democracy over dictatorship,” Pence’s office said in a statement.

Pence to address Latin American leaders on Venezuela crisis

Pence, Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, all more traditional Republicans on foreign policy issues than the populist Trump, have helped steer the confrontational U.S. strategy that critics call interventionist.

Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and other anti-Cuba Republicans also have Trump’s ear, as the president made clear in Miami when he labeled Maduro a “Cuban puppet.”

Rubio, who visited the Colombian border crossing earlier this month, tweeted running commentary on the rising tensions Friday.

“#MaduroRegime failed in an early test of military loyalty. The convoy carrying members of #Venezuela National Assembly was repeatedly harassed by security forces, but ultimately made it to their border state destination early this morning,” the senator tweeted.

The U.S. strategy remains to increase pressure on senior military leaders and other Maduro loyalists to renounce the socialist government and throw their support to Guaidó, a U.S. official familiar with the policy said Friday. The official would not comment directly on whether the United States is helping force the issue by setting up a potential showdown between armed forces and a civilian convoy dispatched to receive the aid. Maduro calls the food and medical supplies a pretext for a U.S. invasion.

“Politicizing humanitarian aid is a bad thing to do for either side,” said Roberta Jacobson, who stepped down last year as U.S. ambassador to Mexico and previously served as a top diplomat for Latin America. “I’m most concerned Maduro and the de facto government, the regime, is looking for a confrontation.”

She also questioned whether the Trump administration is looking to reduce or inflame tensions at the border.

“I think efforts to defuse this, in terms of getting humanitarian aid in, have got to be made. But I’m not sure that’s what the administration is trying to do,” she said. “In their desire to have the balance of power change inside Venezuela, most notably with the military, they see, as Guaidó does, it’s one of the best ways to force that issue.”

Maduro is pointing to the presence of U.S. military aircraft at the Venezuelan border as evidence that the Trump administration is following an old pattern of U.S. meddling in Latin America, an argument that rings true even to some of Maduro’s critics. Maduro also claims that the United States wants to get its hands on Venezuela’s large supply of oil, which the Trump administration denies.

The administration has not spelled out how the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela, as bad as it is, poses a security risk to the United States. Trump has framed U.S. interests in surprisingly ideological terms that evoke the Cold War struggle for influence against the Soviet Union.

“All the nations in our hemisphere have the shared interest in preventing the spread of socialist tyranny,” Trump said Monday. “Socialism, by its very nature, does not respect borders. It does not respect boundaries or the sovereign rights of its citizens or its neighbors. It’s always seeking to expand, to encroach and to subjugate others to its will.”

A 2005 Harvard University study lists 41 examples of U.S. intervention in Latin America over a century.

“In nearly every case, U.S. officials cited U.S. security interests, either as determinative or as a principal motivation,” historian John H. Coatsworth wrote in that study. “With hindsight, it is now possible to dismiss most [of] these claims as implausible.”

Abrams, named last month as the State Department special representative for Venezuela, traveled aboard an aid transport plane Friday to the tense border at Cucuta, Colombia.

The State Department said his visit would “support the delivery of humanitarian aid to some of the most vulnerable people in Venezuela in response to Interim President Guaido’s request.”

Abrams spoke to a crowd near the border Friday, promising that the Maduro government would eventually fall.

The events of the past few days show that the administration is getting impatient, Jacobson said.

“It isn’t happening fast enough for them, there aren’t enough defections,” she said. “Even if they’d say they’re not itching for a confrontation, that’s what could end up happening.”