WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump bluntly put Venezuela’s military leaders on notice Monday that they should embrace the Latin American country’s new political leadership or they will risk their lives and their nation’s future.
In unusually harsh language, Trump said millions of people in Venezuela are suffering from hunger and death while military leaders in the oil-rich nation support a corrupt, repressive regime that has hidden away billions of dollars.
“We know who they are, and we know where they keep the billions of dollars they have stolen,” Trump said during a speech in Miami.
Trump’s remarks came just weeks after his administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s president and were directed at Florida’s Venezuelan community as he tries to appeal to Latino votes heading into the 2020 election.
Florida is home to 166,531 residents who identified themselves as Venezuelan, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s roughly half the Venezuelan community in the United States.
Declaring “a new day is coming to Latin America,” Trump stressed the United States seeks “a peaceful transition of power” in Venezuela, but did not rule out the possibility of military action.
“All options are open,” he said.
And to Venezuelan military leaders who continue to prop up the regime of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, Trump warned: “The eyes of the entire world are upon you today, every day and every day in the future. You cannot hide from the choice that now confronts you.”
Speaking at Florida International University, Trump reiterated strong support for Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, and urged Venezuela’s military and security forces to allow humanitarian aid into the country.
Guaido has declared himself Venezuela’s interim president following last year’s contested presidential election. In late January, the Trump administration recognized him as president and urged Maduro to step down.
Maduro, however, has refused and has accused the U.S. of attempting to stage a coup against his government. Maduro-controlled security forces have blocked shipments of food and medical supplies from reaching Venezuelans in need.
In his half-hour remarks, Trump cast Maduro as “not a Venezuelan patriot” but as “a Cuban puppet” and said “the ugly alliance” that has allowed dictators in the two countries to thrive is coming to an end.
To pressure to Maduro to step down, the Trump administration has slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, effectively barring the country from exporting its crude oil to the U.S. in an effort to starve Maduro’s regime from that vital stream of revenue.
“The people of Venezuela are standing for freedom and democracy, and the United States of America is standing right by their side,” Trump said.
Proclaiming that “the twilight hour of socialism has arrive in our hemisphere," Trump also signaled that Venezuela’s current path toward democracy is irreversible and that the peaceful transition of power will help promote democracy in Nicaragua and Cuba.
Sounding a theme he will likely emphasize during his own re-election campaign next year, Trump sought to tie Venezuela’s problems to what he called “the discredited ideology” of socialism, which he said “promises a better future, but it always returns to the darkest chapters of the past.”
“Socialism is about one thing only: Power for the ruling class,” he said. “And the more power they get, the more power they crave.”
To those who try to spread socialism in United States, Trump said: “America will never be a socialist country. We are born free, and we will stay free now and forever.”
Contributing: John Fritze
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'A new day is coming to Latin America': Donald Trump warns Venezuelan military leaders