Supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognized by the United States as interim president of Venezuela, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro clashed on Saturday over the delivery of humanitarian aid into Venezuela.
The role and rhetoric of U.S. lawmakers in the matter has also grown, with Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate sounding off.
The most vocal on the issue is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who on Saturday was tweeting updates on Venezuela.
“This is very personal to the senator because of who he is as a Cuban American,” said one congressional aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “Any tweet he sends is taken very seriously in Venezuela. He’s someone who has been very loud and clear in support of the Venezuelan people.”
Rubio has long pushed President Trump to take a strong stand on Venezuela, appearing in 2017 at the White House with the wife of Leopoldo López, a prominent political prisoner in the South American country.
For the most part, Republicans on the Hill have been in lockstep in criticism of the Maduro government, albeit not as vocal as Rubio.
Most U.S. officials were quiet as the day’s events unfolded. But national security adviser John Bolton, who has taken a hard-line stance on Venezuela, tweeted that Maduro’s response to trucks of humanitarian aid had been “masked thugs, civilians killed by live rounds, and the burning of trucks carrying badly-needed food and medicine.” He suggested more sanctions were coming.
“Venezuela’s military has a choice: Embrace democracy, protect civilians, and allow in humanitarian aid; or face even more sanctions and isolation,” he wrote, encouraging the Venezuelan military to shift support from Maduro to Guaidó.
“Estamos con ustedes. We are with you,” tweeted Vice President Pence, who goes to Colombia on Monday to give a speech reiterating U.S. support for Guaidó. President Trump, for his part, tweeted, “God Bless the people of Venezuela!”
Democrats are facing something of a split, with some expressing support for regime change in Venezuela, but others cautioning against any actions that would involve U.S. military intervention.
Earlier in the week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who is running for the Democratic nomination for president in the 2020 election, stopped short of calling Maduro a dictator, a move that drew condemnation from Democratic lawmakers from Florida, where many voters have ties to Latin America.
“Senator Sanders, from the very beginning of this, has been pretty clear about Maduro’s responsibility, about the corruption and oppressiveness of Maduro’s regime,” one Sanders aide told WorldViews, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “But he’s also acknowledged the history of the United States when it comes to interventions.”
Sanders, the aide said, has called for free elections and warned against use of violence. His views on Venezuela are “consistent with his approach to violent, undemocratic regimes around the world. That’s something that you cannot say for Trump,” the aide added.
Democratic leadership has voiced support for Guaidó as interim president: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) put out a statement earlier this month, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Saturday, “I think at this point the Trump administration handled this properly,” though he did go on to caution against the use of military force.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who is seeking the party’s presidential nomination, also says she opposes the use of military force. Harris, while campaigning in Iowa on Saturday, said she doesn’t “condone military action at this point,” according to the Associated Press.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), another Democratic presidential contender, also has expressed opposition to U.S. military forces in Venezuela.
Some lawmakers are urging a diplomatic solution. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) co-wrote an op-ed with Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, in which they called for the international community to bring all factions together for negotiations.
The sentiment was echoed Saturday by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the first vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Maduro is a failed dictator who violates human rights,” he tweeted. “But US intervention would just help him rally support and lead to more bloodshed. Can we listen to Pope Francis, let the Vatican lead diplomacy, and not get America into another war.”
Leadership of the Organization of American States, the institution to which many looked to resolve the situation in Venezuela as the situation deteriorated before Guaidó declared himself interim president, sided squarely against Maduro.
Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, has long been critical of Maduro. From the Colombian border with Venezuela, he issued a statement Saturday in which he did not mention Maduro’s name, instead calling him “the usurper.”
“The dictatorship today proved itself weaker and more immoral than yesterday,” he said, citing the arrival of some aid and the defection of a few security forces. “The usurper, in turn, feels accomplished by his repressive forces burning down trucks with food and medicine for Venezuelans in need. His “victory” is, once again, the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
Carol Morello contributed to this report.