By Steve Holland and Anthony Boadle
NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday he wanted democracy restored soon in Venezuela and warned that the United States might take additional measures to apply pressure on the oil-producing nation.
At a dinner with Latin American leaders on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly, Trump said the Venezuelan people were starving and their country, once one of the wealthiest, was collapsing.
Brazilian President Michel Temer told reporters afterwards that all present at the dinner agreed on the need to ramp up international pressure on the Socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro but without intervening directly in Venezuela.
The United States has applied financial sanctions against Venezuela, the supplier of 10 percent of the oil it consumes, and Trump said his government is prepared to take additional steps if Maduro continues on a path to authoritarian rule.
Saying the situation in Venezuela was “completely unacceptable,” Trump called for a full restoration of democracy and political freedoms. “We want it to happen very soon.”
Besides Temer, Trump invited presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Juan Carlos Varela of Panama and Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti to the dinner with their foreign ministers.
At least 125 people have been killed in four months of protests against the Maduro government, which has resisted calls to bring forward the presidential election and instead set up a pro-Maduro legislative superbody called a Constituent Assembly that has overruled the country’s opposition-led Congress.
“To make matters worse, Maduro has defied his own people stealing power from their elected representatives to preserve his disastrous rule,” Trump said at the dinner.
Maduro has blamed Venezuela’s financial troubles on an alleged “economic war” by domestic opponents and the United States.
Latin American governments have called for negotiations to resolve the crisis through a peaceful transition to democracy, especially Colombia and Brazil which have long borders with Venezuela and are receiving tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing the economic chaos and political turmoil.
While the Trump administration has imposed financial sanctions and Trump has called for tougher action, Latin American leaders have stuck to diplomatic sanctions and ruled out a military intervention, an option Trump has mentioned.
“Evidently, everyone at the table wants a democratic solution in Venezuela, but no one wants a foreign intervention,” Temer said.
Sanctions were not discussed at the dinner, the Brazilian leader said. “We are talking about verbal sanctions, with democratic words, diplomatic words,” Temer said.