President Nicolas Maduro. REUTERS/MARCO BELLO
President Nicolas Maduro. REUTERS/MARCO BELLO

New York — US President Donald Trump on Wednesday hinted at a military response to Venezuela, vowing to take action against the leftist-ruled country whose economy has gone into a tailspin.

Trump’s threat — immediately denounced by Venezuela as an incitement to a "military uprising" — comes as the US already piles economic pressure on President Nicolas Maduro’s inner circle amid an economic crisis that has led two million Venezuelans to emigrate.

"What’s happening in Venezuela is a disgrace," Trump told reporters in New York where he is attending the annual UN General Assembly.

"I just want to see Venezuela straightened out. I want the people to be safe. We’re going to take care of Venezuela.

"All options are on the table, every one, — strong ones and the less than strong ones — and you know what I mean by strong," he added.

His comments follow a report earlier this month in The New York Times that officials from Trump’s administration met three times with Venezuelan military officers to discuss plans to oust Maduro.

Coup support

A military option mulled by Trump could entail supporting a coup to oust Maduro rather than a full-fledged invasion by US forces.

Earlier in the week, Trump spoke disparagingly about the security situation in Venezuela, saying that he believed Maduro could be toppled "very quickly" by the military.

Maduro was apparently targeted by exploding drones during a military parade in Caracas on August 4.

Trump’s remarks drew a swift reaction from Venezuela, which since the time of Maduro’s firebrand predecessor Hugo Chavez has lashed out at the US over its history of interference in Latin America and has frequently justified policies by alleging that Washington was plotting to oust the leftist government.

"Venezuela expresses its strongest rejection of the warmongering and interventionist statements issued by the president of the US ... aimed at promoting a military uprising in the country," the foreign ministry in Caracas said in a statement.

After the US treasury department on Tuesday slapped sanctions on his wife, Cilia Adela Flores de Maduro, the Venezuelan leader praised her as a "fierce woman".

"Don’t mess with Cilia. Don’t mess with family. Don’t be cowards!" Maduro fumed during a televised event.

Election ploy

Attending the UN General Assembly session, Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza charged that Trump was targeting his country to drum up support among exiles ahead of tough congressional elections on November 6 and distract from domestic scandals.

"To attack Venezuela or Cuba is to get votes to win Florida and win Congress in the November elections and then to work on re-election," Arreaza told reporters.

"How sad it is to attack countries for electoral reasons!" he said.

Venezuela’s economy has gone into free-fall over the past several years as the price of oil, the country’s critical export, tumbled and the government printed money to try to maintain spending.

Venezuela’s inflation rate is expected to reach a million percent by the end of the year, pushing food, medicine and other necessities out of reach for many Venezuelans.

The country’s crude oil production has also slipped markedly. Venezuela has tried to make up for the crisis in part by borrowing some $50bn the past decade from China, repaying debt through oil shipments.

Colombia’s new right-leaning president, Ivan Duque, used the UN General Assembly to call for a tougher approach to change the "dictatorship" of Venezuela as he sought international assistance for neighbouring countries to accommodate the migrants.