Comments pose challenge for Pence

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s a role Mike Pence has come to know well.

The vice president departs today for Latin America on the heels of yet another provocative statement from President Donald Trump that he is sure to have to answer for. This time it’s Trump’s declaration that he would not rule out a “military option” in Venezuela, where President Nicolas Maduro has been consolidating power, plunging the country into chaos.

The dramatic escalation in rhetoric seemed to upend carefully crafted U.S. policy that has stressed working with regional partners to increase pressure on Maduro. It also contradicted high-level administration officials, including Trump’s own national security adviser, who had warned that any perception of U.S. intervention would stir decades’ old resentments and play into Maduro’s hands.

Experts on the region said the president’s comments Friday would undoubtedly make Pence’s task more difficult when he arrives today in Cartagena, Colombia, on Venezuela’s doorstep.

“Once again, Latin Americans will be looking for Pence to reassure them, to put a lot of daylight between his more traditional, moderate Republican views and those of his meandering president,” said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has extensive experience in the region.

The president’s comments will also complicate the calculus of Latin American leaders, many of whom had been speaking out against Maduro’s actions.

“It pulls the rug out from Latin American leaders who had braved internal political criticism to stand against the dictatorial trend in Venezuela and the human rights violations of the Maduro regime,” said Mark L. Schneider, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He said Trump’s “off the cuff comment” on military options amounted to throwing Maduro “a beautiful life preserver at a time when the growing Latin American consensus was causing fracturing within his own supporters and probably the military.”

Almost since Maduro took office in 2013, he has been warning of U.S. military designs on Venezuela, home to the world’s largest oil reserves. Maduro has also directed his barbs at Trump, describing him as a crass imperial magnate and accusing him of backing a failed attack on a military base.

Just last week, the foreign ministers of 17 Western Hemisphere nations met in Peru, where they issued a rare joint statement condemning Venezuela’s new constitutional assembly and declaring that their governments would refuse to recognize the body.

Harold Trinkunas, of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said it was the strongest condemnation of any fellow government that he has seen in a generation.

“In general, Latin American countries are very reluctant to criticize each other,” he said.

Trump’s comment, Trinkunas said, will make it harder for Pence “to convince Latin American leaders to publicly coordinate measures with the United States to increase pressure on the Maduro regime. Latin American states will not want to be seen as endorsing U.S. military intervention.”

A spokesman for Pence insisted there was no daylight between him and the president.

“The president is sending the vice president to South and Central America to deliver a very clear message both to our partners in the region and to the Maduro regime. The president and the vice president have discussed the trip in depth and are totally aligned on the president’s message to Venezuela and Latin America overall,” said the spokesman, Jarrod Agen.