MIAMI -- President Donald Trump said Monday that "a new day is coming in Latin America," as he sought to rally support among the largest Venezuelan community in the U.S. for opposition leader Juan Guaido and against President Nicolas Maduro's government.
"The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere," Trump said. "Maduro is not a Venezuelan patriot, he is a Cuban puppet."
Speaking at Florida International University in Miami before large American and Venezuelan flags, Trump said the U.S. stands behind Guaido, whom the U.S. recognizes as the country's rightful president, and condemns Maduro's government and its socialist policies.
As the monthslong political crisis stretched on, Trump delivered a public plea to Venezuela's military to support Guaido's government. The Venezuelan military could play a decisive role in the stalemate but has largely remained loyal to Maduro.
Trump issued a dire warning to Venezuela's military that if they continue to stand with Maduro, "you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out. You will lose everything."
Trump added: "We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open."
The military has blocked the U.S. from moving tons of humanitarian aid airlifted in recent days to the Colombian border with Venezuela. The aid shipments have been meant in part to dramatize the hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine that are gripping Venezuela. Trump said of Maduro, "He would rather see his people starve than give them aid."
Maduro responded to Trump in comments broadcast on state television in which he criticized the U.S. president for speaking in an "almost Nazi style" and lashed out at him for thinking he can deliver orders to Venezuela's military.
"Who is the commander of the armed forces, Donald Trump from Miami?" Maduro said. "They think they're the owners of the country."
Critics say Maduro's re-election last year was fraudulent, making his second term illegal.
Venezuela's power struggle is headed to a potentially violent showdown Saturday, when Guaido will try to run caravans of U.S. humanitarian aid across the Venezuelan border from Colombia. Maduro denies a humanitarian crisis exists, blaming the Trump administration for mounting a coup against him.
"On Saturday, you will have to choose who you are truly loyal to: the people, or a decrepit and dying criminal regime," Sen. Marco Rubio said at the Miami event. "They will have to choose whether to spend the rest of their lives as prisoners or fugitives from international justice if they hurt the people of Venezuela or stand in the way of aid."
More than 2 million Venezuelans have fled the country in the past two years, most flooding across the border into Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Those left behind struggle to afford scarce supplies of food and medicine as inflation soars.
Maduro maintains support from Russia, China and Turkey, while Guaido has won recognition from dozens of world leaders in Latin America and Europe, who are demanding that Maduro hold new elections or step down.
Venezuelans are also divided. Outside the university's Ocean Bank Arena, a crowd of several dozen marched in protest, with some waving signs with Guaido's face crossed out, and reading "No U.S. Coup in Venezuela."
"This is not about democracy. This is about special interests," said Yadira Escobar, a 31-year-old local radio personality representing the anti-interventionist group Hands Off Venezuela. Other protesters said they support Trump's actions in Venezuela, but oppose the president.
Inside the arena, the crowd chanted "Libertad!" and roared at predictions of Raul Castro's downfall in Cuba, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Throughout the afternoon, Florida's U.S. senators warned that a deadline set Saturday by Guaido for Maduro to allow aid into the country will be a tipping point in the struggle for leadership of Venezuela.
So far, Maduro isn't budging. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Maduro said Venezuela is ready to make an economic rebound once Trump removes his "infected hand" from the country that sits atop the world's largest petroleum reserves.
Trump urged the Venezuelan military to accept Guaido's offer of amnesty and refrain from violence against those opposing Maduro's government. And he praised the Venezuelan opposition, saying of the people of Venezuela, "They are turning the page on dictatorship and there will be no going back."
South Florida is home to more than 100,000 Venezuelans and Venezuelan-Americans, the largest concentration in the country. Speaking in the presidential battleground state, Trump also sought to draw a contrast with the policies of progressive Democrats, which he brands as "socialist," as he gears up for re-election.
Trump said that "socialism has so completely ravaged" Venezuela "that even the world's largest reserves of oil are not enough to keep the lights on." He added: "This will never happen to us."
"Socialism promises prosperity, but it delivers poverty," he said.
Trump was introduced by first lady Melania Trump and joined by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sens. Rubio and Rick Scott, both of Florida, who have all been outspoken in their criticism of Maduro's government. Trump also spoke of the socialist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua, which have large expatriate communities in the Miami area.
"Socialism is dying and liberty, prosperity and democracy are being reborn" throughout the hemisphere, Trump said, expressing hope that soon, "This will become the first free hemisphere in all of human history."
Trump had been spending the holiday weekend at his private club in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeke Miller and Scott Smith of The Associated Press; and by David Smiley and Martin Vassolo of the Miami Herald.
A Section on 02/19/2019
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