WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on nations across the Americas on Thursday to recognize the Venezuelan opposition leader as head of the country’s legitimate government and to break ties with President Nicolás Maduro.
Mr. Pompeo, speaking at a meeting in Washington of the 35-member Organization of American States, reiterated the United States’ recognition of Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, as the new president of Venezuela. President Trump first announced the recognition on Wednesday, as Mr. Guaidó rallied Venezuelans to take to the streets in mass protests calling for the ouster of Mr. Maduro and new elections.
“All O.A.S. member states must align themselves with democracy and respect for the rule of law,” Mr. Pompeo said.
“The regime of former president Nicolás Maduro is illegitimate,” he said.
“His regime is morally bankrupt, it’s economically incompetent, and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core.”
The administration’s intervention in Venezuela represents a sharp departure for Mr. Trump, who has generally articulated a foreign policy aimed at pulling the United States out of overseas quagmires and staying out of the internal affairs of other countries.
Mr. Pompeo also called on Venezuela’s security forces to protect Mr. Guaidó and other members of the government that is being formed by him. He did not mention the possibility of the United States sending military forces to respond to violence, but a senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday that all options remained on the table.
“I reiterate our warning about any decision by remnant elements of the Maduro regime to use violence to repress the peaceful democratic transition,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Mr. Maduro announced on Wednesday that his government was breaking ties with the United States and ordered all American diplomats to leave within 72 hours — a demand that Mr. Pompeo rejected after Mr. Guaidó said the diplomats should stay.
Mr. Pompeo also said on Thursday that the United States was ready to give $20 million in aid to help alleviate shortages of food and medical supplies in Venezuela’s ravaged economy. Between 2 million and 3 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries because of the implosion in recent years of the Venezuelan economy under Mr. Maduro, a leftist politician who exercises authoritarian powers.
Last year, the United States said it was committing at least $96 million in aid to Latin American nations who were taking in Venezuelan refugees, particularly Colombia. The total aid provided by the United States to affected nations provided since fiscal year 2017 is $140 million.
“We each have a critical opportunity to help the Venezuelan people live free once again,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Many Latin American nations have recognized Mr. Guaidó’s government, but Mexico has been a notable holdout. Its new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is a leftist who has said he is not intervening in other countries’ political affairs.
Among member nations of the Organization of American States, Canada has been at the fore in supporting Venezuela’s opposition leaders. In his speech on Thursday, Mr. Pompeo denounced Cuba, another member of the organization, for backing the government of Mr. Maduro.
White House officials were vague about plans going forward. Asked on Thursday what the administration meant when it said that all options were on the table, John R. Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, said, “I think that speaks for itself.”
Mr. Bolton, speaking with reporters at the White House, said the administration’s focus was on “disconnecting” Mr. Maduro’s government from its revenue sources.
“We’re speaking with governments in this hemisphere, which have overwhelmingly recognized the new constitutional government,” he said. “We’re working really around the clock here to do what we can to strengthen the new government.”
The senior administration official who spoke to reporters on Wednesday said that Mr. Guaidó and his government would have the authority to engage in financial transactions involving Venezuela and the United States, and not Mr. Maduro.
The president has said that the United States would not scold other countries about human rights and he has made friends with some of the world’s leading autocrats in places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, China, North Korea and the Philippines.
Just last month, Mr. Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of troops from Syria, arguing that America’s only interest there was fighting the Islamic State. He offered no criticism at the time of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose government for years has waged war against its own citizens, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of displaced people.
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East,” Mr. Trump asked after making the decision in December, decrying the notion that the United States had a role to play “protecting others” in the region.
In his first foreign trip as president in 2017, he told an audience in Saudi Arabia that he would not try to dictate how other countries treat their own citizens. “We are not here to lecture,” he said. “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”
Mr. Bolton, in his conversation with reporters on Thursday, dismissed a question about why Mr. Maduro is worse than other leaders Mr. Trump has dealt with in places like China, Turkey and the Philippines.
“Well, your question is full of fallacies,” Mr. Bolton said. “The fact is Venezuela is in our hemisphere. I think we have a special responsibility here and I think the president feels very strongly about it.”
The American policy has drawn praise from critics of Mr. Maduro, including ones who have generally been skeptical of policies from the Trump administration.
“I think the U.S.’s stance is the right one,” said Jorge Guajardo, a former ambassador to China from Mexico who is a senior director at McLarty Associates in Washington. “More importantly, I am glad to see the U.S. working within the multilateral system to get this amazing condemnation of Maduro and support of Guaidó.”
“I think Mexico’s stance is shameful, based on complicity rather than principle,” he said.
Roberta S. Jacobson, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said there was a real danger the situation could escalate.
”There’s always the risk of mistakes and miscalculations by one side or the other,” she said. “In this case it’s likely by either side.”
Orignially published in NYT.