The commander of U.S. forces in Latin America told Congress Wednesday that the military is developing plans to be immediately ready for any contingency if Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó ousts dictator Nicolás Maduro from power.
Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee he believes it is only a matter of time before Guaidó, president of the country's National Assembly, takes control. Guaidó encouraged Venezuelans to take to the streets starting Tuesday, saying that the final phase of "Operation Freedom" had begun.
"[T]here is going to be a day when the legitimate government takes over, and it's going to come when we least expect it," said Faller. "And it could be right now, so we are calling it 'day now' planning."
Faller told the committee that repairing Venezuela's dilapidated economic and energy infrastructure after years of corruption and mismanagement won't be a sample task. "[T]he magnitude of the misery is going to require every element of international unity that currently exists," he said.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., asked Faller if military planning includes contingencies involving the aftermath of a U.S. intervention in the country. Faller said the military is preparing for anything the president has said is on the table, adding that "we are on the balls of our feet." He said he would prefer to disclose the details in a closed session of Congress.
Trump has kept military options on the table since Venezuela's political crisis began. In January, the United States and dozens of other Western nations recognized Guaidó as the country's interim president.
"The president has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said today in an interview on Fox Business Network.
Venezuela's political turmoil has been exacerbated by mass food shortages. The average Venezuelan has lost 20 pounds in the last year, Faller said, with 90 percent of people suffering from malnutrition.
Responsibility for the continuing crisis "squarely rests on Cuba, Russia, and to some extent China," the admiral told the committee. The Pentagon has estimated as many as 20,000 Cuban forces are supporting the Maduro regime. An unknown number of Russian military personnel and mercenaries are also believed to be in Venezuela, with 100 special advisers flying in recently.
"It's significant, and it's contributing to the devastation," said Faller.
Trump threatened an embargo against Cuba yesterday. "If Cuban Troops and Militia do not immediately CEASE military and other operations for the purpose of causing death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela, a full and complete ... embargo, together with highest-level sanctions, will be placed on the island of Cuba,"
in a pair of tweets.
Government officials and experts have warned that the conflict in Venezuela could create an immigration crisis larger than that caused by the Syrian civil war. The United Nations estimates
that about 3.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country, with 1.8 million leaving in 2018 alone.