US President Donald Trump has called on Russia to pull its troops from Venezuela and warned “all options” were open to making that happen.
The arrival of two Russian air force planes carrying nearly 100 Russian troops outside Caracas on Saturday has escalated the political crisis in Venezuela.
Russia and China have backed President Nicolas Maduro, while the United States and most Western countries support opposition leader Juan Guaido. In January, Guaido invoked the constitution to declare himself interim president, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.
The US government says the Russian troops include special forces and cybersecurity personnel.
“They’ve got a lot of pressure right now. They have no money, they have no oil, they have no nothing. They’ve got plenty of pressure right now. They have no electricity,” Trump said.
Venezuelans migrants in Colombia share stories of their struggle
“Other than military, you can’t get any more pressure than they have… All options are open,” he added.
Russia has bilateral relations and agreements with Venezuela, which it plans to honour, Russian Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said, in response to Trump’s comments.
“It’s not up to US to decide actions and fate of other countries. It’s only up to the people of Venezuela and its only legitimate President Nicolas Maduro,” Polyanskiy said on Twitter.
Maduro also said a high-profile Venezuelan-Russian intergovernmental meeting will be held in April, adding the sides plan to sign nearly 20 agreements in the spheres of economy, energy, trade and education.
The president also announced that Caracas awaits another delivery of humanitarian aid from Moscow.
On February 22, the Latin American country received 7.5 tonnes of humanitarian cargo from Russia, including medicine, medical equipment and consumables.
‘Break up our morale’
Maduro, who retains control of state functions and the country’s military, has said Guaido is a puppet of the United States.
Trump hosted Guaido’s wife, Fabiana Rosales, who is a journalist and opposition activist, at the White House on Wednesday.
Rosales told Trump that Guaido was attacked on Tuesday, though she did not provide details.
“I fear for my husband’s life,” she said. She was accompanied by the wife and sister of Roberto Marrero, Guaido’s chief of staff, who was arrested and detained last week.
Earlier at the White House, Rosales met Vice President Mike Pence and told him power outages and food shortages were hurting children in her country.
“They are trying to break our morale. They want to submerge us in eternal darkness. But let me tell you that there is light, and the light is here,” Rosales told Pence.
She is slated to meet US first lady Melania Trump in Palm Beach on Thursday on a quick stop in south Florida, home to the largest community of Venezuelan exiles in the United States.
Rosales is also slated to meet politicians on Capitol Hill and members of the Venezuelan diaspora at a prominent Washington think-tank.
Pence praised Rosales for being “courageous”.
“Our message very simply is: We’re with you,” Pence said
Ongoing electricity outages
Meanwhile, the country is experiencing its second major blackout, which has left the streets of Caracas mostly empty, and residents wondering how long power would be out amid a deepening economic crisis.
Who is Venezuela’s legitimate leader?
Maduro said an “attack” on its electrical system caused the blackout that first hit on Monday. The outage closed businesses, paralysed the country’s main oil export terminal, and stranded commuters.
Intermittent service has long affected Venezuela’s largely rural interior, but residents of Caracas fear the increasing blackouts in the capital mean that unreliable power is becoming the new normal for them, too.
“I hope that now with these blackouts in Caracas they can do something, that everyone reacts,” said Maria Melendez, a seamstress in the western city of Punto Fijo who said she has had to replace damaged appliances during previous blackouts.
“They used to say that Caracas is Caracas, and everywhere else is weeds and snakes. Now, Caracas will also be weeds and snakes if we continue like this.”