WASHINGTON (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leaders calling for a military uprising against the government of President Nicolas Maduro gained quick messages of support Tuesday from the Trump administration amid a possible turning point in the South American nation's political crisis.
Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton all expressed support for the opposition as its two most prominent figures, Juan Guaido and Leopoldo Lopez, stood with soldiers and called for the people, and the security forces, to rise up against Maduro.
"We are with you!" Pence tweeted to the opposition, in the most direct message of the three. "America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored."
Pompeo welcomed what the Venezuelan opposition leaders were calling "Operacion Libertad," in hopes that the abrupt release of Lopez from house arrest and the apparent backing of uniformed soldiers would be prompt more members of the security forces to abandon Maduro.
The U.S. views Maduro's re-election last year as illegitimate and has recognized Guaido, the opposition leader of the National Assembly, as interim president.
"The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy," Pompeo said on Twitter. "Democracy cannot be defeated."
U.S. officials were otherwise cautious as they evaluated the situation and waited to see what would develop in the country. In 2002, then President George W. Bush endorsed a coup attempt against the late President Hugo Chavez only to see it fail and his return to power two days later.
Asked about the situation, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney made a distinction between the 2002 events and the current situation. "Importantly, we do not consider it a coup," he said at a conference in California.
Shortly thereafter, Bolton said in a tweet addressed to Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino that the country's security forces must protect the country's constitution and stand with the parliament that Guaido heads.
"The (army) must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people," Bolton said. "It should stand by the National Assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy. The United States stands with the people of Venezuela."
The Trump administration has led calls for countries to recognize Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader and has won the support of 54 countries. But the effort to recruit more has largely stalled as Maduro has clung to power amid a badly deteriorating economic situation.