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The White House’s Senior Director for Latin America, Juan Cruz, called Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro a “madman” in a speech on Monday, adding a thinly veiled call for the South American country’s military to overthrow him under a constitutional provision that justifies rebellion against dictatorial rule.
“ Madman Maduro’s regime turned a flourishing democracy into an oppressive dictatorship,” Cruz told a hemispheric security conference at Florida International University (FIU).
“We call on every citizen to fulfill their duties outlined in this constitution and urge the military to respect the oath they took to perform their functions. Honor your oath,” he added, with deliberate emphasis, referring to the country’s ‘Bolivarian’ constitution which was rewritten in 1999 under former President Hugo Chávez.
Cruz’s citing of the Bolivarian Constitution’s injunction to uniformed and civil servants to defend the nation above partisan politics, appeared to go beyond the Trump administration previous criticism of his regime which has focused more narrowly on allegations of corruption and lack of lack of democracy.
“I have to assume that he was offering at least veiled administration support for civil disobedience,” said former U.S. ambassador John Feeley, who was among the audience of U.S. and foreign military officers, diplomats, academics and students. "The unanswered, and more intriguing question is what kind of support?" he added.
Last year hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans mounted weeks of street protests against Maduro after he declared a Constitutional Assembly to bypass the opposition-controlled legislature. At least 125 people died, with thousands more injured and jailed. But Maduro prevailed.
The Trump administration has sanctioned more than 50 senior Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, and is also said to be considering punishing Venezuelan oil shipments and services. So far, the sanctions have had little or no impact on the Maduro’s policies. Instead, the socialist leader has repeatedly blown off Washington’s attacks, accusing the U.S. “empire” for trying to undermine the country's economy in a vain effort to defeat its socialist agenda.
Cruz’s speech comes as Washington is believed to be crafting new sanctions on the eve of May 20 elections being boycotted by Venezuela’s main opposition coalition. Maduro is running for re-election for another six-year term and has prohibited top opposition leaders from running against him.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said during a visit to Miami last week said he had information that Maduro’s hand-picked Constituent Assembly is drafting a new constitution to limit voting rights under a Cuban-style system controlled by “mass organizations” loyal to the Communist Party.
Cruz is a Special Assistant to President Trump and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, tasked with designing policy for the White House. He was previously head of Latin America for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) where he remains career officer.
Several former top officials for Latin America under president Barack Obama who were also in the audience rejected any encouragement for a military coup.
"I think it’s not good policy to encourage the military to stage a coup. The military is not an agent of democratic change," said Frank Mora, director of FIU's Latin America and Caribbean Center (LACC), and former Latin America head at the Department of Defense under Obama, noting "massive levels of corruption" within the military. "I do not believe Juan directly invoked a coup but I can see how it can be interpreted as such,' he added.
Others felt Cruz did not go far enough. “I think it is high time that the Venezuelan military execute a coup and use force to effect government change,” said Roger Pardo-Maurer, former Latin America head at the Department of Defense under President George W. Bush.
Cruz accused Maduro of inviting a constitutional threat to his rule. “By any metric the Maduro regime has failed to uphold its constitutional duties to protect citizens and respect their dignity and the democratic exercise of the will of the people,” he said.
Under Maduro, Venezuela also represented a threat to regional stability due to the collapse of its economy. That had created a “humanitarian disaster” that is forcing 5,000 people to flee daily, Cruz said, creating what he described as “the largest cross-border mass exodus in our hemisphere’s history.” Almost two million Venezuelans have abandoned the country since 2014, he added, with large numbers pouring over the border into neighboring Colombia.
Cruz quoted article 134 of the Bolivarian constitution: "Everyone in accordance with the law has a duty to perform such civilian and military service as may be necessary for the defense, preservation and development of the country, or to deal with situations involving public calamity.”
He also noted that the same constitution describes the military at the exclusive service of the nation, not at the service of any individual, political party or ideology.
"This is quite clear. It’s not open to interpretation," he insisted.
Article 350 of the constitution reads: "The people of Venezuela, true to their republican tradition and their struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values, principles and guarantees or encroaches upon human rights."
However, Cruz said he expected a "more likely" scenario for regime change in Venezuela was through a multi-lateral negotiated transition that allowed corrupt Venezuelan officials to escape the punishment they deserved. "We’ll all have to bite our lips a little bit and watch a solution that has perhaps some form of forgiveness," he said.