CUCUTA, Colombia — The head of the Organization of American States has joined President Donald Trump in holding out the threat of a military intervention in Venezuela to restore democracy and ease the country*s humanitarian crisis
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro delivered the sharp warning in a visit Friday to Colombia's border with Venezuela in which he also denounced President Nicolas Maduro*s socialist "dictatorship" for spurring a region-wide migration crisis.
"With respect to a military intervention to overthrow Nicolas Maduro's regime, I don't think any option should be ruled out," Almagro said at a press conference in the Colombian city of Cucuta. "What Nicolas Maduro's regime is perpetrating are crimes against humanity, the violation of the human rights and the suffering of people that is inducing an exodus. Diplomatic actions should be the first priority but we shouldn't rule out any action."
Almagro has been Maduro's most outspoken critic in Latin America, but until Friday he hadn't been willing to go as far as Trump, who last year raised the possibility of a "military option" against Maduro. In several meetings with aides and Latin American leaders last year, Trump also discussed the possibility of a U.S. invasion of the South American nation.
Still, for many in Latin America, the prospect of a military intervention is bound to revive memories of the Cold War, when the U.S. gave backing to coups and rebellions from countries including Chile, Cuba and Brazil.
For Almagro, the threat of military force is especially surprising given his condemnation of the region's support for a U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 to remove a democratically-elected but pro-Cuban president. The invasion, carried out in the OAS' name, left thousands dead and for decades stirred Latin American resentment against the idea of ever again using force against sovereign nation.
Almagro in 2015 apologized for the OAS' role in the invasion, saying such events should not be repeated.
While circumstances in Venezuela are far different, and many still see an invasion as a remote possibility, Maduro has nonetheless held out the threat to try and rally Venezuelans behind him at a time of mounting hardships.
Almagro in his visit Friday said countries in the Western Hemisphere should work together to provide relief to the droves of Venezuelans who every day are fleeing hyperinflation and food shortages in their homeland.
But, he added, the ultimate solution to the crisis is to restore democracy in Venezuela.
"The international community has to provide answers. We can't allow a dictatorship in Venezuela that affects the security of entire region through drug trafficking, organized crime and the deep humanitarian crisis it has created," Almagro said.
During Friday's visit to the border, Almagro met aid workers and government officials in the Colombian city of Cucuta, where schools and hospitals are struggling to cope with the influx of Venezuelan migrants.
The outspoken diplomat was stopped on the street and greeted by dozens of Venezuelan migrants who urged him to work for the "liberation" of Venezuela from tyranny.
He said while countries like his native Uruguay had weathered bloody dictatorships in the past, Maduro's government stands out for using shortages of food and medicine as "instruments of repression" to impose its political will.
"This is inadmissible. We've never never seen such an immoral government in the world that doesn't allow the entry of humanitarian aid in the middle of a humanitarian crisis," he said.
According to the United Nations, more than 2.3 million Venezuelans have left their country in recent years.
Increasingly they are leaving with no money and are traveling on foot across South American countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, in dangerous journeys that can take several weeks.
Almagro said the OAS has created a working group that will look at ways to help desperate migrants as well as their host countries.
OAS member states recently voted on a resolution that accuses Maduro of breaking his country's constitutional order when he got himself re-elected in May in a vote boycotted by opponents.
Colombia's foreign ministry, meanwhile, said Friday that it was investigating preliminary reports that 20 soldiers from Venezuela's National Guard illegally entered a remote Colombian river hamlet and captured three civilians.
Relations between both countries have been tense for years, but have not affected Colombia's policy towards Venezuelan migrants so far.