U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the United States is prepared to intervene militarily to stem the ongoing unrest in Venezuela.
“Military action is possible,” the top U.S. diplomat told the Fox Business Network. “If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.”
However, he reiterated that the U.S. would prefer a peaceful transition of power in Caracas from socialist President Nicolas Maduro to the self-declared interim president, Juan Guaido, the president of the National Assembly who is recognized by the United States and about 50 other countries as the legitimate leader of the South American country.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told CNN and Fox News that Pompeo would talk Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Moscow’s continued support for the embattled Maduro.
Pompeo told interviewers that Maduro, in the face of street protests against his regime, was prepared to leave Venezuela for Cuba on Tuesday, but that Russia convinced him to stay to fight Guaido’s call for the Venezuelan military to join him in a push to overthrow Maduro.
Maduro and the Russian foreign ministry denied the Maduro departure allegation, with Moscow saying the U.S. claim was part of its “information war” designed to demoralize the Venezuelan army and foment a coup.
Guaido called for massive May Day street protests Wednesday — “the biggest in the history of Venezuela” — against the Maduro government. Rock- and Molotov-cocktail-throwing protesters and government security troops clashed Tuesday, with authorities firing live ammunition, water cannons and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, killing one and injuring dozens.
Television footage showed one Venezuela National Guard vehicle running over demonstrators who were throwing rocks at the military. The government said one of its soldiers was hit by a bullet.
Tear gas smoke wafted across streets early Wednesday with armor-clad police carrying shields to stand defiantly against rock-throwing protesters.
Maduro said he would lead his own May Day rally and claimed Guaido’s attempted coup had been defeated.
Maduro congratulated the armed forces for having “defeated this small group that intended to spread violence through putschist skirmishes.”
“This will not go unpunished,” Maduro said in a television and radio broadcast.
He said demonstrators will be prosecuted “for the serious crimes that have been committed against the constitution, the rule of law and the right to peace.”
Thousands of demonstrators have joined the street protests after the U.S.-backed Guaido called for the military to reject Maduro’s rule and switch sides in a campaign he called “Operation Freedom.” Guaido appeared Tuesday alongside opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, who had been put under house arrest by Maduro, but said he had been “freed” by soldiers supporting Guaido.
Lopez posted a picture of men in uniform on Twitter, with the message, “Venezuela: the definitive phase to end the usurpation, Operation Liberty, has begun.” Later, Lopez and his family went to the Chilean embassy to seek refuge, then moved to the Spanish embassy.
Tuesday ended without any sign of defections within the military’s top ranks from Maduro to Guaido. But Guaido, the leader of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, appeared undaunted in a video message posted on social media late Tuesday, vowing to keep up the pressure on the embattled Maduro.
Despite widespread food and medical shortages and a failing economy in Venezuela, the socialist Maduro regime has clung to power with the support of most of the country’s military. Venezuela’s two biggest creditors, Russia and China, also have continued to support Maduro.
Meanwhile, the United States has imposed sanctions on Caracas in an effort to curb its international oil sales.
Guaido invoked the constitution to declare himself interim president in January after calling Maduro’s leadership illegitimate because of election fraud.
In a related development, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued an order late Tuesday banning all U.S. airlines from flying in Venezuela’s airspace below 7,000 meters until further notice, citing “increasing political instability and tensions.” The FAA also ordered all air operators in Venezuela, including private jets, to leave the country within 48 hours.
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Photo “Mike Pompeo” by Fox Business.