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Trump’s Venezuela comments pose challenges for Pence

WASHINGTON  — It’s a role Mike Pence has come to know well.

The vice president departs Sunday for Latin America on the heels of yet another provocative statement from President Donald Trump that he is sure to have to answer for. This time it’s Trump’s sudden declaration that he would not rule out a “military option” in Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has been consolidating power, plunging the country into chaos.

The dramatic escalation in rhetoric seemed to upend carefully crafted U.S. policy that has stressed working with regional partners to increase pressure on Maduro. It also contradicted high-level administration officials, including Trump’s own national security adviser, who had warned that any perception of U.S. intervention would stir decades’ old resentments and play into Maduro’s hands.

Experts on the region said the president’s comments Friday would undoubtedly make Pence’s task more difficult when he arrives Sunday in Cartagena, Colombia, on Venezuela’s doorstep.

“Once again, Latin Americans will be looking for Pence to reassure them, to put a lot of daylight between his more traditional, moderate Republican views and those of his meandering president,” said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has extensive experience in the region.

The president’s comments will also complicate the calculus of Latin American leaders, many of whom had been speaking out against Maduro’s actions.

“It pulls the rug out from Latin American leaders who had braved internal political criticism to stand against the dictatorial trend in Venezuela and the human rights violations of the Maduro regime,” said Mark L. Schneider, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said Trump’s “off the cuff comment” on military options amounted to throwing Maduro “a beautiful life preserver at a time when the growing Latin American consensus was causing fracturing within his own supporters and probably the military.”

“Now they will have little option other than to unite at least rhetorically against the Trump threat to ‘send in the Marines,’” Schneider said.

Almost since Maduro took office in 2013, he has been warning of U.S. military designs on Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves. Maduro has also directed his barbs at Trump, describing him as a crass imperial magnate and accusing him of backing a failed attack on a military base.

Just last week, the foreign ministers of 17 Western Hemisphere nations met in Peru, where they issued a rare joint statement condemning Venezuela’s new constitutional assembly and declaring that their governments would refuse to recognize the body.

Harold Trinkunas, of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said it was the strongest condemnation of any fellow government that he has seen in a generation.

“In general, Latin American countries are very reluctant to criticize each other,” he said.

Trump’s comment, Trinkunas said, will make it harder for Pence “to convince Latin American leaders to publicly coordinate measures with the United States to increase pressure on the Maduro regime. Latin American states will not want to be seen as endorsing U.S. military intervention.”

It was a concern raised by Trump’s own national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, in a recent interview.

“Well, you know, there’s a long history in the region of American intervention and that’s caused problems in the past,” he said. “And so, I think we’re very cognizant of the fact that we don’t want to give this regime or others the opportunity to say, well, you know, this isn’t the problem with the Maduro. This is the Yankees doing this.”

But a spokesman for Pence insisted there was no daylight between him and the president.

“The president is sending the vice president to South and Central America to deliver a very clear message both to our partners in the region and to the Maduro regime. The president and the vice president have discussed the trip in depth and are totally aligned on the president’s message to Venezuela and Latin America overall,” said the spokesman, Jarrod Agen.

Pence’s trip comes as the situation in Venezuela has grown increasingly desperate. The U.S. has accused Maduro of a sweeping power grab following the creation of a new constitutional assembly, which has been granted the power to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, declared itself superior to all other government institutions, and ousted Venezuela’s outspoken chief prosecutor. The moves have sparked violent protests.

Pence’s trip had been aimed both at rallying opposition to Maduro in his own backyard, as well as bolstering trade and economic and security cooperation with four key U.S. allies in the region. His schedule includes stops in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Santiago, Chile; and Panama City. The vice president is expected to meet with each of the country’s leaders, deliver a major speech on U.S.-Latin American relations, and tour the Panama Canal.

The trip is the latest indication that Pence has emerged as the U.S.’s top voice on the region — a distinction that was also held by his predecessor, Joe Biden.

“Once again the U.S. is sending the vice president to deal with Latin America,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. While some might view that as “downgrading,” she said, many leaders in the region may prefer dealing with Pence.

“I think they consider Pence more predictable and measured,” she said.

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