On Feb. 23, while most of the world was watching the attempt by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to get humanitarian aid into Venezuela to trigger a massive surrender of the armed forces and the end of President Nicolás Maduro’s reign (it didn’t), the island colony of Puerto Rico was playing a dangerous diplomatic game.
A so-called #BarcoPuertoRico (the Puerto Rican Ship) was sent by the government of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to deliver aid to Venezuela. As with the events unfolding on the Venezuela-Colombia border, there was a lot of hype from Rosselló and his secretary of state, Luis Rivera Marín (a prominent Latino Republican). The U.S. territory took the calculated risk of trying to shock the world by doing something that not even the country that colonized it could accomplish: bring actual aid into Venezuela that would get attention and tip the scales in Guaidó’s quest to become the country’s next president.
Problem is, the ship never even got close.
Through a statement from Rosselló himself, the government of Puerto Rico claimed that the ship was directly threatened by the Venezuelan navy. If #BarcoPuertoRico got closer to the Venezuela, it would be shot at, risking the lives of the U.S. citizens on board. The threat was so real for Rosselló that the governor even reported it to the United States.
On the morning of Feb. 24, however, there were serious questions about whether the threats to #BarcoPuertoRico were as real as Rosselló was claiming. The Puerto Rican government insisted that video of the alleged threat was available and that any journalist interested should contact Telemundo Puerto Rico, which had a reporter on the ship.
By late Monday night of last week, the government of Puerto Rico stood by its claims, via a tweet from CBS News’ David Begnaud. Anyone who was asking questions was essentially working for Venezuela, was in effect the message coming from a government spokesperson. Soon enough, the news fizzled out and Rosselló never provided conclusive evidence of an armed threat. The boat, which had some journalists on board, sailed back to Curacao.
The admission was not the first time that the Rosselló administration decided to play a hand in the Venezuela crisis. Before #BarcoPuertoRico, there was a plane filled with aid that allegedly landed in Venezuela early in February. That is if you believe Secretary of State Rivera Marín, who went on CNN en Español to proclaim that the Puerto Rican plane had indeed landed inside Venezuela. A day after Marín said that, he took back his claim and said the plane never did land.
It is clear that humanitarian aid to Venezuela is being used as impetus for Guaidó to gain political momentum, so it’s not a stretch to state that what Puerto Rico tried to do twice was a foreign policy move. The question is: Why is Puerto Rico, as a territory of the United States, conducting foreign policy when it can’t? Unless the U.S. State Department is aware of what Puerto Rico is doing and has given it explicit permission, the sudden pushes by Rosselló and Rivera Marín to focus on Venezuela are bizarre.
What if #BarcoPuertoRico had been shot and sunk? What if Rivera Marín’s plane had been taken down? Were these two attempts to bring aid into Venezuela a disguise to provoke an armed conflict and give the United States the justification it needed for military intervention?
These moves by the Rosselló administration are very dangerous. Even the most ardent anti-Maduro nations, particularly those in Latin America, think military intervention and war would be disastrous not only for Venezuela but also for the region. Was Puerto Rico’s humanitarian aid trying to poke a bear that doesn’t need any poking?
Rosselló no longer has a good political relationship with the Trump administration, ever since the federal government’s failed response to Hurricane María. But was this Venezuela push a way to gain some political favor with Trump? Recently Rosselló posted a photo on Twitter with Vice President Pence at the White House during the National Governors Association gala. And this week, during his reelection announcement, Rosselló told his supporters that he will not stay silent about the Maduro regime.
It’s hard to tell. Rosselló's administration and supporters dismiss these and other questions as Maduro-funded propaganda. It is easier to paint critiques of #BarcoPuertoRico as a global leftist plot than to actually answer what is Puerto Rico’s role in Venezuela policy and why did it think such moves were wise.
So we will likely never know what the real motives were, but we can say this: Puerto Rico needs to step away from being a foreign player in the most important political story of the Western Hemisphere. Rosselló's reckless involvement could trigger an armed conflict that could have an immense impact for generations to come.