(Adds more Pompeo comments)
(CNSNews.com) – On a day of high drama in Caracas, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday afternoon that Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro was believed to have been ready to leave the country hours earlier, but had been persuaded by the Russians not to go.
“It’s been a long time since anyone has seen Maduro,” he told CNN. “They had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning as we understand it. And the Russians indicated he should stay.”
Pompeo said Maduro had been intending to fly to Cuba.
Asked whether, if Maduro does decide to get on the plane, the U.S. would ensure that he could fly safely to Havana, Pompeo would not answer directly, but said that “Mr. Maduro understands what will happen if he gets on that airplane. He knows our expectations.”
Pompeo also said the U.S. cannot envisage Maduro staying in Venezuela – “a nation that he has so decimated” – even if he gave up power.
“It just simply – we can’t imagine a way that that would possibly work, so it’s time for him to leave Venezuela.”
Pompeo was speaking hours after opposition leader Juan Guaido in a video address called on the Venezuelan military and citizens to support him in the “final phase” of ending what he called Maduro’s “usurpation” of power.
Pompeo referred to senior regime officials having indicated in recent weeks that they were ready to leave.
“We think the situation remains incredibly fluid,” he said. “We know that there were senior leaders inside the Maduro government that were prepared to leave. They told us as much over the past few weeks. And we’re convinced that the Venezuelan people are going to get their democracy back.”
Earlier in the afternoon, National Security Advisor John Bolton named some of the officials whom he said had signaled to the Guaido-led opposition that they were prepared to support a peaceful transition.
In an evident bid to compel them to act, Bolton identified three key officials – Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno, and Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala, commander of Maduro’s presidential guard.
Speaking outside the White House, Bolton said it was “very important for key figures in the regime, who have been talking to the opposition over these last three months to make good on their commitments to achieve the peaceful transfer of power from the Maduro clique to interim President Juan Guaido.”
(Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, is recognized by the U.S. and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s interim president, pending new elections.)
“Figures like Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, the chief judge of the Venezuelan Supreme Court. Maikel Moreno, commander of the presidential guard Rafael Hernandez Dala,” Bolton continued. “All agreed that Maduro had to go. They need to be able to act this afternoon or this evening to help bring other military forces to the side of the interim president.”
All three officials identified are longstanding Maduro loyalists, and all are sanctioned by the U.S. government. The unit led by Hernandez is accused by the U.S. Treasury Department of rights abuses including torture of Maduro’s opponents.
In the course of the day Padrino, the defense minister, in several tweets and retweets expressed full support for Maduro on the part of the country’s armed forces, known by the acronym FANB.
“The FANB remains steadfast in defending the national constitution and its legitimate authorities,” he said in one. “All military units … report normality in their military barracks and bases, under the command of their natural commanders.”
“We reject this coup movement that seeks to fill the country with violence,” Padrino said in another tweet, describing opposition figures as “cowards” and as “pseudo political leaders who have placed themselves at the forefront of this subversive movement.”
Russia’s foreign ministry accused Guaido and his supporters of resorting to violent means of confrontation, “provoking violations of public order and staging clashes with the involvement of the armed forces.”
“The problems facing Venezuela should be resolved via a responsible negotiation process without preconditions,” it said in a statement. “Any actions should be taken exclusively within the confines of the law, in strict conformity with the Constitution and without destructive interference from outside the country.”
While Moscow charges the U.S. with such “interference” in Venezuela, the Trump administration in turn accuses Russia, which sent troops to Caracas last month, and Cuba, which Bolton said again Tuesday had deployed 20,000-25,000 security force personnel in Venezuela
“The Cubans we believe have played a very significant role in propping Maduro up today, possibly with help from the Russians,” Bolton said. “That’s the speculation certainly in Caracas. We think this demonstrates why we need Venezuela ruled by the people of Venezuela, and not by external forces.”
And he added a warning both for regime loyalists and their foreign backers.
“We want as our principal objective the peaceful transfer of power,” Bolton said. “But I will say again, as the president has said from the outset, and Nicolás Maduro and those supporting him – particularly those who are not Venezuelans – should know is, all options are on the table.”
Underlining one such option, President Trump warned Cuba on Twitter that if it does not stop military support for the regime in Venezuela the U.S. will impose a “full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions.”
Trump expressed the hope that Cuban soldiers deployed in Venezuela would “promptly and peacefully return to their island.”