Donald Trump threatened a US military intervention in Venezuela on Friday, a dramatic escalation in his administration’s stance toward the Latin American country which is descending into political chaos.
Trump made the remarks in response to questions from reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Asked what options were available for the US in dealing with Venezuela, which has descended into civil unrest under the leadership of president Nicholás Maduro, Trump responded by explicitly not ruling out military force.
“We have many options for Venezuela and by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option,” he said.
“We have many options for Venezuela, this is our neighbor,” Trump added.
“We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very very far away, Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and dying.
We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary.”
Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defence minister, said on Friday night that Trump’s threat was an “act of craziness” and “supreme extremism”.
General Vladimir Padrino, a close ally of Maduro, said: “With this extremist elite that’s in charge in the US, who knows what will happen to the world?”
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, tweeted:
“Perhaps since [Hugo] Chávez named him his successor, no one had helped Maduro as much as Trump and this nonsense he said today.”
The White House released a statement saying it had rejected a request from Maduro to speak by phone with Trump.
The statement said: “Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country.”
The surprise intervention caps a week of increasingly bellicose rhetoric directed at North Korea.
Venezuela has appeared to slide toward a more volatile stage of unrest in recent days, with anti-government forces looting weapons from the military after the installation of an all-powerful new legislative body.
When a reporter followed up to ask Trump if this “military option” would be US led, the president responded: “We don’t talk about it.
A military operation, a military option is certainly something that we could pursue.”
The remarks come as Maduro has convened a constituent assembly, in an election widely denounced by international observers, to amend the country’s constitution to cement his grip on power.
Maduro has also forced the country’s chief prosecutor from office, while the United Nations has condemned the government’s use of excessive force against protestors.
Although Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, its economy has collapsed in recent years as the country led first by the late Hugo Chávez and then by his successor, Maduro, has resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures to consolidate power.
Peru expelled Venezuela’s ambassador on Friday as regional pressure built on Maduro’s government.
Venezuela retaliated by ordering the head of Peru’s embassy in Caracas to leave and called Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski an “enemy” of Venezuela and of Latin American unity.
Trump’s remarks come in the shadow of a 2002 coup attempt against Chávez that he blamed on the US.
The coup was launched after a violent confrontation between marchers in support of a general strike clashed with government forces.