UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the Security Council on Wednesday the Trump administration is determined to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela, preferably through diplomatic and economic pressure, but "all options are on the table" — and Russia and others need to step aside.
Venezuelan Ambassador Samuel Moncada said his 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 the emergency meeting of the U.N.'s most powerful body, which is deeply divided over Venezuela, to focus on the worsening humanitarian situation in the South American country. But as with previous meetings, this one was dominated by U.S. efforts to oust Maduro and replace him with Juan Guaidó, head of the country's opposition-controlled National Assembly.
Pence also said that Trump has made clear Russia needs to get out of Venezuela, stressing that Russian aircraft landing in the country and bringing in security or advisory personnel "is just unacceptable."
"This is our neighborhood," Pence told reporters afterward. "And the president has made it clear that whether it be Russia, or whether it be other nations, that they need to step aside. They need to cease efforts to stand in the way of economic and diplomatic pressure, and they need to cease supporting the Maduro regime."
Pressed on whether "all options are on the table" meant that military intervention was a closer possibility, Pence said, "We have no timetable for the restoration of freedom."
But he said that since 2017, Trump has made clear that "we're absolutely determined to see freedom and democracy restored in Venezuela" and to see Maduro step down and democracy restored under Guaidó.
Pence urged the United Nations to recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president and revoke Moncada's credentials as his country's U.N. 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.
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 Nicolás 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.
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 Guaidó, and with only 54 countries now supporting Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president, it faces an uphill struggle.
Asked what made the U.S. think it has support to give U.N. recognition to Guaidó, Pence said, "I think momentum is on the side of freedom — momentum is on the side of the suffering people of Venezuela."
Guaidó toured the Caracas area Wednesday telling supporters it is not the time to rest in the fight to oust Maduró, who the U.S. and other nations contend was re-elected illegitimately last year because the main opposition candidates were barred from running.
"We're living this tragedy," Guaidó said. "This is a disaster we're enduring."
Russia's U.N. 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 United States "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 United States overthrowing Latin American leaders and he asked Venezuela's neighbors who support Guaidó: "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.
British Ambassador Karen Pierce said the suffering faced by Venezuelans "is the result of years of mismanagement by the de facto government" and while humanitarian aid is urgently needed "it won't solve the crisis."
"Political change is equally urgent," she 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.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said the humanitarian problem has worsened and "the scale of need is significant and growing," with 7 million people representing 25 percent of Venezuela's population needing humanitarian aid.
Lowcock told the council the U.N. is working to expand humanitarian aid, but much more is needed.
Dr. Kathleen Page, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, called for the situation in Venezuela to be declared "a complex humanitarian emergency that poses a serious risk to the region."
She said a report by Johns Hopkins public health researchers and Human Rights Watch found that the combination of severe medicine and food shortages in Venezuela, and the spread of disease across the country's borders, amounts to a complex humanitarian emergency requiring a full-scale U.N. response.
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 and almost doubling its staff to around 180 people.
The group will be focusing on issues including rehabilitating hospitals, increasing water supplies, training the armed force in international humanitarian law and visiting detainees, he said.