MIAMI — President Trump on Monday delivered his sharpest warning yet to Venezuela’s military authorities in an increasingly tense showdown over that country’s crisis, proclaiming they would “lose everything” by remaining loyal to President Nicolás Maduro and refusing to allow in emergency aid stockpiled on the border.
Mr. Trump gave the warning in a speech denouncing Venezuela’s brand of socialism to an enthusiastic crowd in Miami that included many Americans of Venezuelan descent who have fled Venezuela or have relatives in the country, once Latin America’s wealthiest but now facing the greatest economic collapse in generations.
He spoke five days before a deadline that his administration and the Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, have declared for getting humanitarian aid into the country — a move aimed at weakening Mr. Maduro, who is no longer recognized by the United States and roughly 50 other nations as the country’s president. Mr. Trump was the first to recognize Mr. Guaidó last month as Mr. Maduro’s replacement until new elections can be held.
“We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open,” Mr. Trump said. He urged all members of the Venezuelan military to permit the aid into the country, and advised them to accept the opposition’s amnesty offer — or they will find “no safe harbor, no easy exit, and no way out.”
“You will lose everything,” the president said.
Despite the tough language, it remained unclear how the Venezuelan opposition would break Mr. Maduro’s blockade of the border with a delivery of food and medication on Saturday. Mr. Trump’s own national security adviser said the American military — which has airlifted tons of supplies to Venezuela’s doorstep on the Colombia border — will not cross into the country.
The ambitious land-and-sea campaign would bring humanitarian supplies through Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean and into the hands of thousands of Venezuelans who have suffered from protracted shortages of food and medicine.
Mr. Trump’s warning followed a whirlwind of high-profile visits to the Venezuela-Colombia border by American officials — including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and the head of the United States Agency for International Development — who have embraced the opposition’s plans to use aid as their chief political weapon.
If Mr. Maduro’s stranglehold on the food and medicine supply can be broken, and he can be shown to have lost control of the border, his legitimacy as the country’s president will weaken, the reasoning goes. If the military can be convinced to not stand between the Venezuelan population and the humanitarian aid, he may fall.
“On the 23rd some people in the regime will have to make a life-defining decision,” Mr. Rubio said Monday in an interview in Cúcuta, where a bridge into Venezuela is blocked on Mr. Maduro’s orders by a couple of shipping containers. “Either they stick with this dictator, who is illegitimate and whose days are numbered, and deny your people food and medicine. Or is this the time to say, ‘this is as far as we will go’?”
It is a risky gamble for Mr. Maduro’s adversaries, who say they are unclear as to how they will break the blockade at the border on Saturday.
While Mr. Guaidó is regarded by the Trump administration as Venezuela’s rightful president, the White House is facing the reality that Mr. Maduro still controls the military, and with it, the state.
“If the opposition — and Trump administration — are trying to find ways to peel away military support for Maduro, threatening its monopoly on food distribution is not likely to be helpful in that regard,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, the Latin America director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
She added that by creating a political showdown over the humanitarian shipment, the White House only increased the prospects that Mr. Maduro would keep blocking the aid.
For Mr. Guaidó, there is an additional risk: In accepting wholeheartedly Mr. Trump’s embrace, Mr. Guaidó may look like a puppet of the United States.
“Being associated too closely with the U.S. carries too much baggage anywhere in Latin America,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. “And when you have a leftist government that rallies its base on these issues of American imperialism, it plays closely into their narrative.”
Mr. Isacson, who directs the group’s security and defense program, also expressed concern about the tension that the rhetoric of Mr. Trump and Mr. Maduro was raising on the border.
“With this kind of saber-rattling you create potential for a hair-trigger moment,” he said, citing Mr. Maduro’s dispatch of troops to the border. “An incident there could go badly.”
Cúcuta, which is across a river from Venezuela, now offers the kind of contradictory scenes that reflect a country where two men claim the presidency. One of the shipping containers blocking the bridge into Venezuela, emblazoned with the word “paz,” Spanish for “peace.”
On the Venezuelan side, the government has amassed soldiers, militiamen, armored vehicles and even missiles. On the Colombian side sit news camera crews and trucks full of supplies. Richard Branson, the British billionaire, has invited a lineup of Latin American musicians to perform an aid concert on Friday night.
Yet no one has explained how the aid will reach Venezuela. The opposition has so far been quiet about details of its plans, saying that if they released information Mr. Maduro would stymie them with his security forces.
Gaby Arellano, an opposition lawmaker sent by Mr. Guaidó to coordinate the aid, said that the opposition did not necessarily have to use the blocked Tienditas Bridge.
“The border with Colombia is immensely long, and so is the border with Brazil, and the border with the Antilles,” she said. “We want the aid to be coming in at all points.”
For more than a week, activists and officials have said they are mulling the option of simply smuggling in aid through Venezuela’s porous land borders, along routes long used to transport contraband products and fuel. Opposition activists have said they have already joined forces with the Pemones indigenous community in eastern Venezuela to bring in supplies by river, using their canoes.
Another option, pushed by those looking for a more direct confrontation with Mr. Maduro, would have activists encircle an aid truck in Colombia as it slowly makes its approach to Venezuela. Under this plan, protesters from Venezuela would overrun soldiers stationed on the Venezuelan side and allow the aid to move in, possibly using a forklift to push aside the containers blocking the bridge.
In Curacao, opposition officials were buoyed by the willingness of the country’s foreign minister to stage aid along a sea corridor long used by Venezuelan migrants to flee the country. But in recent days, plans appeared to be falling apart as politicians in Curacao objected to the use of the aid as a political weapon.
The uncertainty has left some in Venezuela not counting on aid anytime soon.
“They say they are in charge of the government, but the ones who are in charge are the ones who control the bridge,” said Héctor Cárdenas, 52, who crossed the border to buys a month’s worth of cooking oil, vegetables, soap and medicines in Colombia. “The opposition has no real power.”
John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, told reporters in Miami before the speech that Venezuelan volunteers would bring in all the donated supplies, with no assist from the American forces that have stockpiled the aid on the Colombian side.
Regardless, the outcome would not be ideal for Mr. Maduro, Mr. Bolton said, because if the Venezuelan military blocked the aid, the world would see Mr. Maduro’s “true colors.”
“We hope that the press will be there to see the Maduro loyalists stopping humanitarian assistance from going to the poor people of Venezuela,” Mr. Bolton said. “People want to know why the Venezuelan people are rising up. That act by Maduro would be proof beyond words.”
In Caracas, the Venezuelan government made its own attempt to turn the propaganda wars on food to its own advantage on Monday.
Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez said Venezuela would be sending 20,000 boxes of food into Cúcuta, citing Colombia’s history of drug violence and poverty.
“It seems that no one takes care of the Colombian people, especially those on the border,” he said.
Orignially published in NYT.