The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuelan opposition looks to foreign allies for further steps to unseat Maduro

Thousands marched at the border, calling for trucks filled with foreign aid be allowed into the country—only to be met with tear gas and rubber bullets. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — The Trump administration is preparing to make a more forceful push this week to unseat Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, after a weekend plan to coax his military to abandon him and allow in hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid ended in deadly violence and with little clarity about what comes next.

Vice President Pence will travel to Colombia on Monday to meet with regional leaders — including the head of the Venezuelan opposition, Juan Guaidó — and discuss potential options for a more muscular front against Maduro. While the White House originally cast Saturday’s aid push on the Venezuelan border as a potential tipping point for ousting Maduro, administration officials said Sunday that the weekend’s violence had frustrated those plans, making new action necessary.

Pence plans to announce “clear actions” to respond to the weekend’s clashes, though he is not likely to address whether the U.S. military would get involved, a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the plans, told reporters Sunday.

Asked whether President Trump would deploy the military to intervene, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that “every option is on the table.”

“We’ll continue to build out the global coalition to put force behind the voice of the Venezuelan people,” he said in an interview on Fox News Sunday.

Guaidó suggested Saturday that he would entertain more radical solutions to try to oust Maduro, whom opposition figures blame for the deaths of at least eight people as a result of Saturday’s border violence.

“Today’s events force me to make a decision: to pose to the international community in a formal way that we must have all options open to achieve the liberation of this country that is fighting and will continue to fight,” Guaidó tweeted.

The opposition leader — who had secretly crossed the border into Colombia to lead the aid effort, running the risk of being barred from reentry or arrested upon return — will have an opportunity to make his case directly to Pence during their face-to-face meeting Monday.

Guaidó’s comments suggested the opposition’s limitations after a plan it had hoped would cause deep fissures in Venezuela’s military instead produced only modest cracks. In the face of Maduro’s military blockade of aid, the opposition largely failed to bring in the assistance it hoped to deliver to the neediest Venezuelans.

Pence will have “concrete steps” for addressing the weekend’s violence when he addresses a regional diplomatic gathering in the Colombian capital, Bogota, a Trump administration official said. The official, one of two who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, would not describe any specific proposals or U.S. actions Pence may announce.

“What we saw yesterday with the burning of aid trucks, with the use of tear gas and bullets against unarmed civilians whose only purpose was to receive that aid, we understand that what we are dealing with is not the institution of a state but a bunch of hoodlums and thugs,” a second senior Trump administration official said.

Maduro celebrated the retreat of the aid trucks; he had called the aid a pretext for a U.S. invasion. But the U.S. official called that a “tactical victory” at best, and one that is “perishable.”

Last week, Trump delivered an ultimatum to members of the Venezuelan military, warning that they would “lose everything” if they stood with Maduro and harmed innocent civilians.

The opposition’s strongest U.S. backers, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), sharply criticized Maduro and suggested repercussions.

“After discussions tonight with several regional leaders it is now clear that the grave crimes committed today by the Maduro regime have opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago,” Rubio tweeted late Saturday.

In a provocative move Sunday, Rubio tweeted out two photos — one of former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi sitting in a gold chair while in power and the other of his bloodied face and body as he was surrounded by a crowd of rebel fighters shortly before his death in 2011.

Debate on Venezuela shakes up Florida politics

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres issued a statement Sunday saying he was “shocked and saddened” by the deaths of civilians on Saturday. He denounced the use of lethal force and appealed for calm, urging “all actors to lower tensions and pursue every effort to prevent further escalation.”

Yet as Guaidó and other opposition leaders prepared for Monday’s meeting in Bogota, they appeared to be running out of options. 

Last month, the United States imposed sweeping sanctions that effectively cut off Maduro’s biggest source of hard currency — oil sales to the United States. Having done that, the United States has pulled the most powerful economic lever it had. 

The sanctions risk worsening Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, since the nearly bankrupt government — now even more cash-strapped — is the chief importer of food and medicines. The U.S. calculation is that the sanctions will make Maduro’s rule un­tenable. But there are still no guarantees they will do anything more than make a bad situation worse on the ground. 

After an aid operation that failed to achieve its goals, the opposition is also in danger of losing its greatest ally: momentum.

Amid chaos and defiance, Venezuelan opposition faces off against security forces as Maduro digs in

The opposition and its U.S. and regional allies will continue trying to court military officials by promoting the promise of amnesty if they turn against Maduro. But observers said that dangerous scenarios loomed larger “than ever.” 

“There is no question that a military intervention to resolve the Venezuela crisis is more plausible than ever,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “Guaidó’s insistence that ‘all options are on the table’ echoes President Trump’s words, first uttered in August 2017 and widely interpreted as serious consideration of military action.” 

No military option would be clean or easy, and critics say its threat potentially helps Maduro — an autocratic leader who has used repression against his own people — portray himself globally as a leftist martyr persecuted by the Trump administration. 

U.S. forces, experts say, could take out Venezuela’s air defenses within hours, but an outright U.S. invasion would be unprecedented in South America. It also risks deep divisions in the region and could potentially spark a guerrilla war by leftists while leaving Washington with the burden of rebuilding a failed state. 

More-surgical strikes — like the U.S. operation that nabbed Panama’s Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1989 — remain potentially more likely, but they also present massive problems. 

“When Noriega left, the regime collapsed, and there wasn’t much behind him,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. “In Venezuela, you can decapitate the regime, but there will still be [leftists] and armed goon squads who may be spoiling to fight.” 

Venezuela’s crisis: How did it get so bad?

Colombian officials said more than 100 members of the Venezuelan armed forces and other security services abandoned their posts Saturday and Sunday, but the power structure of Maduro’s armed forces, at least for the moment, appeared intact. 

The meeting of Latin American leaders is expected to yield a new condemnation of Maduro by his neighbors, a relatively new development that the Trump administration counts as a diplomatic coup.

Maduro retains backing from Russia, China and other nations, as well as control of the military and security services.

The meeting of the “Lima Group” was planned before the weekend showdown over aid delivery.

In a televised news conference in Caracas, Maduro’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, insisted that Saturday’s effort by the opposition was simply a ruse to encourage a foreign invasion. 

“There was no humanitarian intention,” Rodríguez said. “The intention was to encourage aggression by a foreign country, an armed aggression against a country.”

He added, “Guaidó, a pathetic character, can no longer explain this coup attempt based on the constitution.” 

Guaidó is the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, a body stripped of its power in 2017. Last month, Guaidó declared that Maduro’s election to a new term in 2018 was fraudulent, and claimed a constitutional right as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. In doing so, Guaidó electrified a moribund opposition and positioned himself as a national hero. 

But after leaving the country to lead the aid effort, he faces a crucial hurdle. His exit violated a standing travel ban imposed on him by Maduro’s supreme court, meaning Guaidó is at risk of detention or potential exile. 

His calculation is that international pressure might prevent both. 

“All the scenarios left for the opposition are terrible scenarios,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst.

Colombian President Iván Duque went Sunday to the Simón Bolívar bridge — site of intense exchanges of tear gas and rubber bullets the day before — with a convoy of white SUVs and armored vehicles from the Colombian armed forces. Police said U.S. officials were among the large delegation seen touring the bridge.

Pence plans to meet with Duque while he is in Colombia.

With tensions still high on the border, Colombian authorities announced Sunday that Duque had ordered the closure of his country’s three main bridge crossings to Venezuela in the North Santander region through Monday night. Aid trucks had sought to cross there on Saturday before confrontations began between pro-government troops and operatives and the Venezuelan opposition.

The opposition, meanwhile, said one of its leaders, Freddy Superlano, had been poisoned with a drug called burundanga in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta and remained hospitalized. Superlano’s assistant died of the same poison.

The opposition called for an investigation into the poisonings, while making no claims of who might be behind them.

The bloodiest clashes took place on the border with Brazil, where pro-government paramilitary groups killed eight people and injured 34 with gunfire, according to the nonprofit legal group Foro Penal, opposition leaders and witnesses at the hospital in Santa Elena de Uairen that received the victims. Patients and their families panicked as buses and motorbikes with armed men swarmed outside the hospital.

“Too many people shot by bullets kept coming in. It’s terrifying,” said Yolderi Garcia, a 62-year-old volunteer at the Hospital Rosario Vera Surita. “It’s a horrible day. We are very worried because this is a small town.”

Rachelle Krygier and Mariana Zuñiga in San Cristobal, Dylan Baddour in Cúcuta, Colombia, and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news