CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday called for military exercises after U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat of a possible armed intervention in the country, but Maduro insisted he still wanted to hold talks with the U.S. leader.
As Maduro told supporters in Caracas to prepare for an “imperialist” invasion, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sought to calm concerns in the region about Trump’s talk, promising a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s “collapse into dictatorship.”
The unpopular Maduro, struggling with a disintegrating economy at home and increasing diplomatic isolation abroad, has used Trump’s comments on Friday to reaffirm long-standing accusations that Washington is preparing a military attack.
“Everyone has to join the defense plan, millions of men and women, let’s see how the American imperialists like it,” Maduro told supporters, urging them to join the two-day operation on Aug 26 and 27 involving both soldiers and civilians.
Thousands of government supporters rallied in Caracas where they denounced Trump’s suggestion of a “military option” to resolve Venezuela’s crisis.
Over 120 people have been killed since anti-government protests began in April, driven by outrage over shortages of food and medicine and Maduro’s creation of a legislative superbody that governments around the world say is dictatorial.
Maduro said Trump’s advisors had confused him about the true situation in Venezuela.
“I want to talk by phone with Mr. Trump, to tell him ‘They’re fooling you, Trump, everything they tell you about Venezuela is a lie. They’re throwing you off a cliff.’”
The White House last week rebuffed Maduro’s request to speak to Trump, saying the president would talk with Venezuela’s leader when the country returned to democracy.
Earlier in the day, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino appeared in a televised broadcast with dozens of battle-ready troops behind him at an army base, including soldiers with shoulder-fired missile launchers pointed skyward.
In a speech, he warned that the United States wanted to steal the OPEC nation’s oil reserves.
Late socialist leader Hugo Chavez frequently staged military exercises during his 14-year rule, many of which involved defending the country against mock foreign armies.
Critics generally dismissed them as bravado meant to distract from problems at home.
Venezuela’s opposition coalition on Sunday rejected foreign threats to the country. It did not specifically identify Trump or the United States, but criticized Maduro’s close relationship with Communist-run Cuba.
Vice President Pence said the United States would bring economic and diplomatic power to restore democracy in Venezuela.
“A failed state in Venezuela threatens the security and prosperity of our entire hemisphere and the people of the United States of America,” said Pence, speaking to reporters in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena.
“The regime is experiencing change right now and what we’re witnessing is Venezuela is collapsing into dictatorship.”
Countries across Latin America, where the United States flexed its military muscles throughout the 20th century, rejected Trump’s comments and said U.S. intervention was unwelcome.
On Sunday night, in an apparent effort to ease alarm, Pence said the United States was confident that a peaceful solution could be found to the country’s political and economic crises.
The country last month, at Maduro’s behest, elected a “constituent assembly” with sweeping powers including the capacity to rewrite the constitution. Maduro says the assembly will bring peace to the country.
His adversaries boycotted the election, calling it a power grab meant to keep the ruling Socialist Party in power and insisting it will do nothing to tame soaring inflation or resolve food and medicine shortages.
Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann in Washington and Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota, Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Andrew Hay