The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump remark on Russian presence in Venezuela is puzzling

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó delivers a speech in Socopo, Venezuela, over the weekend.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó delivers a speech in Socopo, Venezuela, over the weekend. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump said Monday that Russia has informed his administration that it had “removed most of their people in Venezuela.”

His remarks, made on Twitter during his visit to London, followed charges by national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month that increased Russian military, diplomatic and economic support were propping up Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in the face of U.S. and other calls for his ouster.

Russia’s actions, Pompeo said, were “destabilizing for Venezuela and for the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship.” Bolton said the United States was implementing the Monroe Doctrine, established in 1823 to prevent outside powers from intervening in the Western Hemisphere.

At the time, Trump appeared to contradict them, saying after a telephone call with President Vladi­mir Putin that the Russian leader was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen.”

Venezuela’s military, despite U.S. expectations, has not turned on Maduro

It was unclear from Trump’s Monday tweet which Russians he was referring to, and Russia made no direct response.

Earlier in the day, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had referred questions about Rostec, the Russian state defense contractor, to the company itself, after the Wall Street Journal reported it had cut its staff of defense advisers in Venezuela, once totaling about 1,000, to a few dozen.

Rostec, in a statement, denied the report. “The composition of the mission has remained unchanged for years,” the statement said, noting that technical specialists also cycled in and out of Venezuela to maintain and repair Russian-supplied defense equipment.

Russia has been a primary backer of Maduro, and the primary arms supplier to Venezuela for the past decade, including fighter aircraft and antimissile defense systems. About 100 Russian military personnel arrived in Caracas aboard two military planes in March. U.S. officials said they thought their purpose was to perform maintenance on the S-300 air defense system, and that they would leave when it was completed.

Meanwhile, Latin American and European leaders met Monday at the United Nations in an ongoing effort to promote a negotiated solution to the ongoing Venezuelan crisis.

All are supportive of Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s elected National Assembly who they, and the Trump administration, recognized as interim president in January. But as Guaidó and the Venezuelan opposition have failed to unseat Maduro — and the administration has become more vocal about the possibility of U.S. military intervention — these allies have increasingly pressed for political negotiations.

The allies are arrayed in two separate organizations — the Lima Group, of Latin American countries and Canada, and the International Contract Group, which includes the European Union and some of its leading members.

In a communique issued after their Monday meeting, the two groups confirmed their “commitment to a peaceful transition” in Venezuela, and “support to all efforts underway toward this goal.” While they reiterated their backing of Guaidó and continued pressure on Maduro, they said they wanted to increase contacts among themselves and with all sides in Venezuela.

“This is a great day, and good news, for all of those who search for a peaceful and political solution to the crisis in Venezuela,” Chilean Foreign Minister Roberto Ampuero said in a news conference. “Very important countries from Europe and Latin America have agreed to this document, looking into the future and stressing the will of all who signed [that] the solution to Venezuela and the current crisis is a peaceful one, a political one.”

The two groups support negotiations between the Maduro government and the Guaidó-led opposition currently underway in Norway, where they have had two meetings, and have reached out to both Russia and Cuba, Maduro’s main supporters.

As Venezuela’s misery grows, U.S. focus shift to Cuba’s role

The administration is “hugely skeptical” about the prospect of a negotiated settlement, a senior administration official said, and called on Norway to push the Maduro government to release opposition political prisoners before any talks proceed.

While the Trump administration has demanded that Cuba end its presence in Venezuela, and Trump has threatened severe sanctions, Latin American countries have said that Havana should be included in discussions of how to persuade Maduro to step down.

When Vice President Pence traveled late last week to Canada, he told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the two countries “need to work together to expose the malign influence of Cuba inside Venezuela.”

Trudeau, at their joint news conference, countered that Canada thinks the correct course was engagement with Cuba.

“We of course acknowledge the United States position and perspective on Cuba,” he said, but “Canada has a very different one.” In discussions within the Lima Group, to which the United States does not belong, “we recognize that Cuba can potentially play a very positive role in the well-being and future stability of Venezuela. . . . That is why we have been engaging with Cuba.”

Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.

This article has been updated to correct the year the Monroe Doctrine was established.