In a whirlwind trip to Bogota, Colombia, on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence made a direct appeal to Venezuela’s armed forces, urging them to offer their support for the government of interim President Juan Guaidó and to abandon any remaining loyalty to the embattled regime of Nicolás Maduro.
During an address to the multi-nation Lima Group, Pence also announced fresh sanctions on Maduro government officials – including several who were implicated in the weekend’s deadly unrest – and promised more than $50 million in additional support for regional partners addressing the crisis.
He promised stronger sanctions were forthcoming and called on the leaders gathered in Bogota to take further steps to isolate Maduro’s government economically and diplomatically, including by freezing all the assets of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA.
“We will find every last dollar they have stolen and return that money to the Venezuelan people,” Pence said in a speech before the group.
He also reiterated a latent military threat, invoking previous comments made by President Trump that “all options” remained on the table.
“Despite Maduro’s brutality, we will press on,” Pence said.
In remarks to reporters following his speech, Pence said a large part of the message he was sent to deliver was aimed at Venezuelan soldiers, nearly 200 of whom, he said, had defected over the weekend.
“Our hope is that members of the armed forces see the brutality of this week, where, literally, the tyrant in Caracas was dancing when civilians were being were being murdered and truckloads of medicine were being burned,” he said, referring to Maduro, who at one point amid the clashes on Saturday danced with his wife at a political rally.
“Our hope is that members of the armed forces of good conscience, who have families of their own, and children of their own, will step forward for freedom,” Pence said.
Maduro hangs on with help from military
But Maduro has managed to cling to power, or at least its semblance, in no small part because he has retained the loyalty of top military brass and a sprawling network of militias, or colectivos, some of which he enlisted in frustrating the international aid deliveries Saturday.
His militias fired tear gas and live ammunition into protesting crowds, killing several civilians, and set ablaze two trucks loaded with food and medicine.
Before beginning his remarks to the Lima Group on Monday, Guaidó, who had made a furtive trip across the border in defiance of a travel ban issued by Maduro, called for a minute of silence to recognize those who were killed, calling the weekend’s events “a massacre.”
“There is no dilemma between peace and war,” Guaidó said, “peace must prevail.”
“The time has come to change history,” he said, bringing the room to its feet at the conclusion of his address.
Pence, who met Guaidó in person for the first time Monday, later said their private conversations focused on the urgent need for humanitarian aid to be successfully delivered into the country, but that the possibility of other interventions by the United States also arose.
“He affirmed his desire that we keep all options on the table,” Pence said, “And I assured him that they were.”
Although the Vice President repeated demands that “Maduro must go” throughout the day, he declined to elaborate on what next steps the United States was prepared to take, apart from sanctions and diplomatic pressure. He likewise sidestepped questions about what kind of developments might constitute a ‘red line’ for the Trump administration.
“That would be a matter for the President of the United States to determine in consultation with our allies,” he said.
“But let me say again: we remain hopeful that there will be a peaceful transition of power,” he added.
Pence and Guaidó also met with several Venezuelan families who had fled their country and sought refuge in Colombia, which has taken in over one million refugees from Venezuela as its crisis has unfurled.
“I’m here to say, on behalf of the people of the United States, we are with you, and we will stay with you until your ‘libertad’ is restored,” Pence said.
Some among the crowd expressed tearful gratitude and sought out extended embraces from Guaidó, who led the room in singing the Venezuelan anthem; it ended in cheers and hearty chants of “Libertad!”