The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump warns Venezuelan military leaders they could ‘lose everything’ over socialism

Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim president, Juan Guaidó, holds a news conference at the Voluntad Popular party headquarters in Caracas on Feb. 18.
Venezuela’s self-proclaimed interim president, Juan Guaidó, holds a news conference at the Voluntad Popular party headquarters in Caracas on Feb. 18. (Fernando Llano/AP)

MIAMI — President Trump urged senior members of the Venezuelan military Monday to abandon President Nicolás Maduro and switch their allegiance to congress leader Juan Guaidó, threatening that those who do not will “lose everything” fighting to defend a failed socialist system.

“The eyes of the entire world are upon you, today, every day, and every day in the future,” Trump said during a speech at Florida International University in Miami. “You cannot hide from the choice that now confronts you. You can choose to accept President Guaidó’s generous offer of amnesty, to live your life in peace with your families and your countrymen. President Guaidó does not seek retribution against you, and neither do we.”

The president spoke to a crowd in Miami that included Venezuelan expatriates who fled the country’s socialist policies and soaring inflation. Trump’s administration is trying to bolster Guaidó’s precarious position as the self-declared interim president of the oil-rich nation now in the grips of an economic and humanitarian crisis that Trump and much of the world blame on Maduro’s government.

Trump, who in 2017 said that he was considering a “military option” for Venezuela, warned military leaders not to threaten violence against peaceful protesters. He came as close as he has thus far to threatening to use U.S. force against the Maduro regime.

“We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open,” Trump said in a 30-minute speech that included lengthy sections denouncing socialism in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

In a televised event Monday, Maduro called Trump’s speech a ‘Nazi’ discourse.

“They think they are the owners of this country. Donald Trump thinks he can give orders and that our armed forces will agree,’’ Maduro said. ‘It’s an offense to the dignity of our military, an embarrassment, that the armed forces are somehow authorized to respond morally to the head of the empire.’’

In Venezuela, humanitarian aid has become a political weapon

Maduro retains the backing of top generals and other security services, and he has used that power to block delivery of humanitarian aid from the United States that he calls cover for a U.S. invasion. Maduro’s security forces also pose a threat of arrest or harm to Guaidó, who was seized briefly last month. Despite growing international diplomatic backing, Guaidó would need the support of the security forces to assume power fully.

Trump emphasized strong U.S. and international support for Guaidó, which now includes more than 50 nations saying they recognize him as Venezuela’s leader. Vice President Pence called on the European Union to do so in an address Saturday to the Munich Security Conference.

Pence urges E.U. to denounce Maduro and recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader

Millions of people have fled Venezuela in recent years, and those who are left are often unable to afford food or medicine. Many have routinely crossed the border to Colombia for food and medical treatment, returning to their homes with supplies.

Maduro’s government announced last week that it would soon receive 933 tons of “health products” from China and Cuba.

Venezuela’s Maduro still has a diplomatic lifeline — and it’s in the heart of New York City

Before Trump spoke, Guaidó addressed the crowd of several hundred by video and thanked Trump and the United States for supporting his efforts. Members of the crowd waved Venezuelan flags as the words “Democracia,” “Libertad” and “Prosperidad” flashed on video screens.

The visit to Miami came as Trump’s campaign for reelection is beginning to intensify. Hispanic voters in South Florida have been top targets for presidential contenders looking to compete in the nation’s largest swing state.

“Why is Trump speaking in Miami today? My analysis shows some 36k Venezuelan-born naturalized citizens are registered to vote in Florida,” Daniel Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida, said Monday on Twitter.

As part of his reelection effort, Trump has sought to brand his Democratic opponents as socialists, often using the example of Venezuela as a warning to voters. “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said during his Feb. 5 State of the Union speech, after mentioning Venezuela’s political and economic turmoil. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Trump repeated the line Monday and said those who support socialist policies in the United States had flawed reasoning and insincere motives.

In Venezuela, the nation is bracing for a major showdown later this week, when the opposition says it will try to move tens of millions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid — a large portion of it supplied by the United States — over the border against Maduro’s orders. At the same time, Maduro and the opposition also appeared be preparing to square off in a Battle of the Bands.

On Friday, an opposition-backed concert for Venezuela — backed by British billionaire Richard Branson — is set to lure thousands to a border bridge near the city of Cucuta, Colombia, in a bid to raise additional aid to help Venezuelans cope with severe shortages of medicines and food. The lineup contains a star-studded cast, including the Colombian singer Maluma. 

In response, Maduro’s camp said Monday it would stage its own rival “Hands Off Venezuela” concert on another bridge less than three miles away. 

Trump’s administration appears to be making aid delivery the pivot point for whatever happens next. With a tense standoff brewing in Cucuta, opposition leaders and U.S. officials hope to prompt the first public mass defection of Venezuelan armed forces if the soldiers ignore Maduro’s orders and allow aid to flow into the country.

During a visit Sunday to Cucuta, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) encouraged troops to defect.

“There comes a time in many people’s lives when they have to make a decision that will define them forever,” Rubio said. “That time has come for the Venezuelan soldiers.”

Trump warned military officials of the dangers of continuing to support Maduro.

“If you choose this path, you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out. You will lose everything,” he said Monday.

Guaidó has said more than 600,000 Venezuelans have agreed to join a massive protest and aid delivery effort planned for Saturday.

Maduro told the Associated Press last week that a top official from his administration has met in New York with Trump’s special envoy for the Venezuela issue, Elliott Abrams, and extended an invitation for Abrams to visit Venezuela, the news agency reported.

“If he wants to meet, just tell me when, where and how and I’ll be there,” Maduro told the AP, adding that he also hopes to meet Trump.

The State Department has neither confirmed nor denied such a meeting.

Elements of Trump’s remarks highlighted the role of conservative anti-Castro political support for Trump — especially in Florida — in forming his administration’s bold policy on Venezuela. The United States was the first to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president and has implied that it could use military force to ensure aid delivery or protect U.S. interests.

“The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere,” Trump said. “Maduro is not a Venezuelan patriot, he is a Cuban puppet.”

The political standoff began when Maduro won reelection in a widely contested vote in May. Guaidó, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, invoked the Venezuelan constitution in claiming himself the nation’s true president last month.

Gearan reported from Washington. Karen DeYoung and Alan Sipress in Washington, Anthony Faiola and Rachelle Krygier in Caracas, Venezuela, and Dylan Baddour in Cucuta, Colombia, contributed to this report.