- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday called anew for the ouster of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, asserting that the socialist leader’s removal is the only way democracy can be restored in the South American nation.

The Maduro regime is “a threat to peace and security across the hemisphere,” said Mr. Pence, noting the thousands of refugees fleeing Venezuela’s economic meltdown to nations across the region, including the United States.

Speaking in Miami ahead of the deployment of the Navy’s USNS Comfort hospital ship to the region in response to the widening humanitarian crisis, Mr. Pence reiterated the Trump administration’s 6-month-old assertion that Mr. Maduro “is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power.”

“Nicolas Maduro must go,” the vice president said alongside Adm. Craig Faller, the U.S. Southern Command chief. “Once he is gone, we believe there can be a pathway to free and fair elections [in Venezuela].”

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido launched a campaign in January to remove Mr. Maduro from power. Backed by the U.S. and dozens of other nations, Mr. Guaido contends he is the rightful leader of Venezuela after a sham election that kept Mr. Maduro in office.

Mr. Guaido heads the opposition-controlled National Assembly. He and his followers made global headlines in May by announcing a self-declared “final phase” of internal efforts to oust Mr. Maduro from the Venezuelan presidency.

Violent clashes briefly followed in Caracas between Guaido supporters and government troops but ended when pro-Maduro security forces reasserted control over the Venezuelan capital.

Venezuela’s chief prosecutor on Tuesday accused Mr. Guaido of being the author of a public corruption scheme stemming from a call for the security forces to abandon Mr. Maduro.

Attorney General Tarek William Saab said his office is investigating two diplomatic representatives of Mr. Guaido who are accused of stealing money and falsifying hotel bills while helping Venezuelan soldiers desert into neighboring Colombia. The Maduro government previously accused Mr. Guaido of criminal activity but stopped short of jailing him.

Michelle Bachelet, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, is expected to visit Venezuela this week to meet with Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaido, as well as with victims of human rights violations.

The Trump administration has recognized Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president and imposed sanctions on the country’s already deteriorating oil industry. Mr. Maduro maintains backing from Cuba, Russia and other nations.

Mr. Pence said Tuesday that Venezuela under Mr. Maduro has devolved into “unprecedented crisis and oppression,” with 9 out of 10 people now living in poverty.

The USNS Comfort’s deployment marks the second time in six months that the Navy hospital ship has headed to the region. Pentagon officials said the ship will make several stops in Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts and Nevis.

The Comfort’s medical crews “will provide care on board and at land-based medical sites, helping to relieve pressure on national medical systems strained partly by an increase in displaced Venezuelans,” the Navy said in a statement Monday.

Washington has sent some 500 metric tons of food, medicine and other material to Venezuela in recent months.

Mr. Pence lamented Tuesday that military forces loyal to Mr. Maduro have blocked all of the aid from entering Venezuela.

“We are with our neighbors, and we will stand with them,” the vice president said of the effort to aid the Venezuelan people. “We will continue to stand strong until freedom, democracy and the rule of law are restored.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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