In Colombia, Pence tries to strike balance on Venezuela

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Demonstrating the delicate balancing act that has come to define his vice presidency, Mike Pence tried to strike a balance Sunday in Colombia between Latin American opposition to possible U.S. military intervention in neighboring Venezuela, and President Donald Trump’s surprising refusal to rule out that option.

Speaking during a joint news conference with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos shortly after his arrival in Latin America, Pence also declined to rule out possible military action against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose efforts to consolidate power in the country have drawn alarm. Still, Pence stressed the U.S. would much prefer what he called a “peaceable” solution to the growing political and humanitarian crisis.

“President Trump is a leader who says what he means and means what he says,” Pence said. “But the president sent me here to continue to marshal the unprecedented support of countries across Latin America to achieve by peaceable means the restoration of democracy in Venezuela, and we believe it is achievable by those means.”

Trump’s startling comments Friday sparked backlash across the region, including from Venezuela’s chief opposition coalition and the Colombian government.

Standing at Pence’s side in Cartagena after a joint meeting, Santos said he had repeatedly told Pence in no uncertain terms that the U.S. must not even consider military action in response to Venezuela’s crisis.

The two countries are important allies, Santos said. “But since friends have to tell each other the truth, I have told Vice President Pence that the possibility of a military intervention shouldn’t even be considered, neither in Colombia nor in Latin America,” Santos said through a translator. “America is a continent of peace. It is the land of peace. Let us preserve it as such.”

Analysists said Trump’s comments played into Maduro’s hands by awakening dark memories of U.S. intervention in the region and making it harder for other Latin American countries to join the anti-Maduro coalition. “The phantom of military interventions in Latin America disappeared a long time ago, and we don’t want it to return,” Santos said.

Pence emphasized the U.S. will work together with many nations in Venezuela’s “neighborhood” to pressure Maduro so that Venezuela’s democracy can be restored.

“We simply will not accept the emergence of a dictatorship in our hemisphere,” he said, continuing the tough talk that has been Trump’s approach to Maduro. “The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” he said.

Pence also addressed the deadly violence that broke out Saturday during a march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, using words the president would not. “We have no tolerance for hate and violence, white supremacists or neo-Nazis or the KKK,” Pence said.

“These dangerous fringe groups have no place in American public life and in the American debate, and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms.”

Trump has been criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for not singling out those groups directly in a lengthy Saturday statement and instead blaming “many sides” for the violence.

Pence insisted the president had “clearly and unambiguously condemned the bigotry, violence and hatred which took place on the streets of Charlottesville” and blamed the media for the criticism.

“We should be putting the attention where it belongs, and that is on these extremist groups that need to be pushed out of the public debate entirely,” he said.

Pence also addressed the spike in coca production in the Colombia, saying the worsening crisis required “swift action to protect the people of both our countries.”

A July report from the United Nations showed that coca production in Colombia had reached levels not seen in two decades, complicating Colombia’s efforts to make its vast, lawless countryside more secure.