Venezuela accuses U.S. of laying groundwork for invasion

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence tells the United Nations Security Council that the Trump administration is determined to restore democracy to Venezuela, preferably through diplomatic and economic pressure, but that "all options are on the table."

U.S. vice-president tells UN Trump administration will restore democracy in Venezuela

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence told the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday that 'all options are on the table' in the U.S. bid to restore democracy in Venezuela. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence told the United Nations Security Council Wednesday that the Trump administration is determined to restore democracy to Venezuela, preferably through diplomatic and economic pressure, but that "all options are on the table" — and Russia and others need to step aside.

Venezuela's UN Ambassador Samuel Moncada said the country is threatened with war by the Trump administration, "and the ground is being laid for an invasion." He told the council: "We must stop this war of Donald Trump."

The United States called an emergency meeting of the UN's most powerful body, which is deeply divided over Venezuela, to focus on the worsening humanitarian situation in Venezuela. But as with previous meetings, this one was dominated by U.S. efforts to oust President Nicolas Maduro and install National Assembly speaker Juan Guaido as the country's leader.

Pence urged the United Nations to recognize Guaido and revoke Moncada's credentials as the Maduro government representative. He said the United States would be circulating a resolution that would do this and also stand with the Venezuelan people "as they rise up ... against intimidation and violence," and for freedom.

Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations Samuel Moncada said ground is being laid 'for an invasion' by the U.S. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Looking at Moncada, who was also seated at the horseshoe-shaped Security Council table, Pence said: "With all due respect Mr. Ambassador, you shouldn't be here." He then added: "You should return to Venezuela and tell Nicolas Maduro that his time is up. It's time for him to go."

Pence left immediately after he spoke and didn't hear Moncada say later: "My legitimacy depends on the legitimacy of my government as recognized by the United Nations. It is not dependent on the declarations of … the vice-president of the United States."

"There is a clear move here to undermine our rights," Moncada said, "and if they can undermine our rights, they can undermine the rights of all members of this organization, so we must categorically reject this."

Accusation of hate, racism, contempt

Maduro said later in a television address that Pence "made a fool of himself" at the council, calling his remarks "ridiculous."

"They think they're superior to Venezuelans. And they think they can give orders to Venezuela," he said. "It's truly visible in the face of Mike Pence. One sees the hate, the racism, the contempt with which he refers to Venezuela."

The United States would need strong support in the 193-member General Assembly to change Venezuela's credentials from the Maduro government to Guaido, and with only 54 countries now supporting Guaido as Venezuela's interim president, it faces an uphill struggle.

Asked what made the U.S. think it has support to give Guaido UN recognition, Pence said, "I think momentum is on the side of freedom — momentum is on the side of the suffering people of Venezuela."

A Venezuelan holds a poster with a message that reads in Spanish: 'Protesting because; No electricity, No water, No food,' during a demonstration against President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas Wednesday. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, whose country strongly supports Maduro, called the council meeting just "another episode of a tragedy with several acts in the attempt to change regime in Venezuela."

The U.S. "has artificially provoked a crisis in this country in order to overthrow a legitimately elected leader and replace him with their own pawn," he said.

Nebenzia said there are many examples of the U.S. overthrowing Latin American leaders and he asked Venezuela's neighbours, who support Guaido: "Don't you understand that Venezuela is merely a bargaining chip in the geopolitical and geostrategic struggle for influence in the region and the world?"

"We call on the United States to recognize that the Venezuelan people and other people have the right to determine their future," the Russian ambassador said.

Borrowing Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again," Nebenzia said: "If you want to make America great again, and we're all sincerely interested in seeing that, stop interfering in the affairs of other states."

"You will only gain respect from that, You don't like when others interfere in your affairs. No one likes that," he said.

Venezuela is wracked by hyperinflation, widespread shortages of food and medicine and struggles in the key oil industry, all problems that the opposition blames on mismanagement and socialist policies of the government.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said the humanitarian problem has worsened and "the scale of need is significant and growing," with seven million people representing 25 per cent of Venezuela's population needing humanitarian aid.

Lowcock told the council the UN is working to expand humanitarian aid, but much more is needed.

Maduro, right, meets with Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Maurer says the organization is tripling its budget for the country. (Marcelo Garcia/Miraflores Press Office/Associated Press)

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, announced at the end of a five-day visit to Venezuela that the organization is tripling its budget for the country to around $24 million US and almost doubling its staff to around 180 people.

The group will focus on issues including rehabilitating hospitals, increasing water supplies, training the armed forces in international humanitarian law and visiting detainees, he said.

Maduro, who has denied that Venezuela is experiencing a humanitarian crisis, said on state television on Wednesday that the country had reached "an agreement" with the International Red Cross to work with the United Nations to bring in aid.