By Alexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela condemned on Friday U.S. comments that its own military could topple President Nicolas Maduro and said a Latin American tour by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was seeking a regional “intervention” against the socialist government.
“The armed forces radically reject such deplorable remarks that constitute a vile act of interference,” said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, flanked by armed forces’ top brass.
“When you invite the armed forces to overthrow a government, you’re showing a lack of respect,” he added, before reading a formal statement of support for Maduro.
On Thursday, Tillerson raised the prospect of a Venezuelan military coup during a speech at the University of Texas ahead of a five-day tour of Latin America.
Discussing Venezuela, the U.S. official said militaries in Latin America often “handled” transitions from bad governments, but insisted he was not advocating “regime change.”
“If the kitchen gets a little too hot for him, I am sure that he’s got some friends over in Cuba that could give him a nice hacienda on the beach and he could have a nice life over there,” Tillerson said, referring to 55-year-old Maduro, who has a close relationship with Cuba’s communist government.
Senior military leaders have consistently stood by Maduro, whom critics accuse of turning Venezuela into a dictatorship and wrecking its economy. But discontent among the rank-and-file, especially at their own economic penuries, is evident.
There have been some small uprisings against Maduro from within the security forces. A National Guard captain led an attack on a barracks but was later arrested, and a police helicopter pilot lobbed grenades at government buildings but was tracked down and killed last month.
Venezuela’s opposition leaders have long urged the military to take action against Maduro. Maduro maintains the United States and opposition parties are part of an international right-wing conspiracy to oust him and get their hands on the OPEC nation’s oil wealth.
U.S. President Donald Trump has himself suggested possible military intervention in Venezuela, though that was widely rejected in Latin America. Trump has imposed individual and economic sanctions on Venezuela’s government, accusing it of rights abuses and corruption.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta, Andreina Aponte, Andrew Cawthorne; Writing Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bernadette Baum)