President Donald Trump has warned the Venezuelan military not to block tonnes of humanitarian aid due to arrive in the country on Saturday, threatening the soldiers with grave consequences for remaining loyal to President Nicolas Maduro.
“Today I have a message for every official who is keeping Maduro in place,” he said, speaking at a university in Miami – the city with the highest population of Venezuelan exiles in the US.
“You cannot hide from the choice that now confronts you. You can choose to accept President Guaido’s offer of amnesty, and live your life in peace with your country. But you must not block humanitarian aid.
“Or you can choose the second path; continuing to support Maduro. You will find no safe harbour, no easy exit, no way out. You will lose everything.”
Mr Maduro has said the tonnes of aid, coordinated by his rival, self-declared “interim president” Juan Guaido, was designed to humiliate the country, and act as cover for an invasion. He has ordered the armed forces to block the aid coming in from Colombia and Brazil, and stationed troops on the border to prevent the assistance from being delivered.
But Mr Trump, the first of around 50 world leaders to recognise Mr Guaido, told the crowd that “my heart is in Venezuela”, and urged the Venezuelan soldiers to ignore Mr Maduro’s orders, and allow the aid to enter the troubled country.
He also had stern warnings for Cuba, which props up Mr Maduro’s teetering regime, and the socialist rulers of Nicaragua.
Mr Guaido, the leader of the national assembly, declared himself president on January 23, arguing that the presidency was left “vacant” owing to Mr Maduro’s fraudulent re-election.
He promised soldiers on January 27 that they would be given amnesty if they defected, and since then, cajoling the military – seen as the real source of power in the country – to abandon Mr Maduro has been a priority of his.
Mr Trump attacked the senior officials in Mr Maduro’s government for enriching themselves, while the country starved. A tenth of the population have now fled their homes, driven out of a country which Mr Trump said was on “the brink of ruin”.
To chants of “USA!”, Mr Trump told the crowd that they stood “at the threshold of history, ready to reclaim their country and reclaim their history.”
“Socialism has so ravaged the country that even the world’s largest reserves of oil are no longer enough to keep the lights on,” he said.
“Millions are starving, while a few at the top are plundering the nation.
“We know who they are, and we know where they keep the billions they plundered.
“They are risking their future, they are risking their lives, and Venezuela’s future, for a man controlled by Cuba. Maduro is not a Venezuelan patriot; he is a Cuban puppet.”
Mr Trump’s speech was peppered with multiple stern warnings to the government in Havana, warning President Miguel Diaz-Canel that Cuba could be the next socialist country to fall.
The remarks are likely to only stiffen the resolve of Cuba’s leadership, which has for almost 20 years backed first Mr Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and Mr Maduro himself.
Mr Guaido, speaking via videolink, told the gathering they were facing an “existential” struggle.
“Now there is a debate between the democracy and dictatorship — one between life and death,” he said.
“We must take advantage of this opportunity. The moment is now for change in Venezuela with determination and pressure from within Venezuela.”