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Florida Republicans warn that Trump’s Venezuela policy is at risk of backfiring

President Trump  speaks about the crisis in Venezuela during a visit to  Florida in February.
President Trump speaks about the crisis in Venezuela during a visit to Florida in February. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Some Florida Republicans are warning that President Trump’s Venezuela policy risks creating political problems in the must-win state, where the fate of that Latin American nation is hugely important to large Venezuelan and Cuban immigrant communities.

Trump has tied his toughness toward Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro, to his domestic political message, citing it as evidence that he is fighting socialism while he accuses Democrats of embracing it. But without Maduro’s ouster, Trump’s policies could look weak and his effort could seem a failure — turning Venezuela into a political liability.

“This could be another Bay of Pigs as far as Cuban sentiment is concerned,” said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, referring to the failed U.S. military invasion of Cuba in 1961. If Maduro is toppled, he said, “Trump’s name is gold in South Florida,” but if not, “it’s going to hurt him.”

That compounds other dangers for Trump among Hispanic voters in Florida. His new restrictions on Cuba win praise from older Cuban Americans, but polls in recent years show a younger generation favors more open relations. Many Hispanics are recoiling from Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, as well as his widely criticized response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico.

Florida was crucial to Trump’s 2016 win and will factor heavily into his bid for a second term. His campaign has broken up the country into nine regions, aides said, each with its own political director. Under this plan, Florida is its own region — the only state with that distinction. It has more electoral votes than any other competitive state, with winning margins that have been slim in recent elections. And about one in six Florida voters is Hispanic.

“We can always expect a close race in Florida,” said former congressman Carlos Curbelo, a Republican. “The administration’s actions with regard to Venezuela could make all the difference, either in getting the president across the finish line in Florida, or, if this effort stalls, it could also cost him.”

Scenes from the third year of Trump's presidency

Dec. 19, 2019 | President Trump meets with Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, , Vice President Mike Pence, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The president’s aggressive denunciations of socialism and communism in the Western Hemisphere looked like a surefire winner until recently. Republicans believed it dovetailed nicely with his portrayal of his Democratic rivals as far-left extremists and would appeal to Hispanic voters with roots in authoritarian countries.

However, the efforts to oust Maduro have sputtered, while U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó is struggling to assert his influence. That’s creating consternation in South Florida’s Venezuelan and Cuban American communities and a sense that Trump’s insistence that Maduro must go — only to have him stay — hasn’t been as effective as they’d hoped.

The U.S. presidential election is 18 months away, and much could change in Florida, across the nation and in Venezuela. Republicans won gubernatorial and Senate seats in Florida in last year’s midterm elections, contrasting with losses elsewhere and giving them confidence about 2020.

But they are also starting to grapple with the impact of an unresolved and volatile situation abroad.

Curbelo, like other Hispanic leaders, voiced disappointment with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent remark that the administration is working with the Cuban government to try to get Maduro to depart.

“I would say that up until that point the administration had gotten it right, but they certainly slipped with that announcement,” said Curbelo, a Cuban American who does not believe the communist leadership in Havana will play a constructive role.

Curbelo was unseated last November by Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador as a child — an illustration of Florida’s multifaceted politics and its ties to foreign affairs.

As Maduro faced domestic challenges earlier this year, Trump seized the chance to play an outspoken role, choosing Florida to highlight his policies in a February speech. There are an estimated 200,000 people of Venezuelan descent in Florida, more than any other state.

“A new day is coming in Latin America,” Trump proclaimed in his Miami address. He underscored the swift U.S. decision to recognize Guaidó as the rightful interim leader of Venezuela and how it paved the way for other nations to follow. “In Venezuela and across the Western Hemisphere, socialism is dying,” Trump said.

There were unmistakable domestic political undertones to Trump’s words, as he appeared to draw a connection between the situation abroad and the debate over democratic socialism playing out in the 2020 campaign. Some leading liberals, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), consider themselves democratic socialists, though most reject that label.

“To those who would try to impose socialism on the United States, we again deliver a very simple message: America will never be a socialist country,” Trump said.

Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the team plans to keep emphasizing that point, which he called an “especially poignant” argument in Florida. In response to the GOP political worries about Trump and Venezuela, Murtaugh said, “It is never a mistake to stand for freedom against tyranny.”

Despite the international support for him, Guaidó’s recent call for military defections from Maduro did not work, leaving him and his U.S. allies scrambling to consider next steps and bracing for a potentially lengthy standoff rather than a quick victory.

Trump reflected the changed circumstances when he returned to Florida for a campaign rally last Wednesday, spending far less time talking about Venezuela than he did recalling his election victory in 2016. “How are we doing in Venezuela?” he said. “Step by step.”

While the president has said that all options are on the table, some Republicans want the Trump administration to take a more combative stance. Mel Martinez, a former U.S. senator from Florida, said he would like a “more credible threat of military action.”

“I think the rhetoric has been stronger than the actions,” said Martinez, a Republican who fled Cuba in 1962. “You know, it’s a different thing, but it reminds me a little bit of President Obama and Syria.”

That referred to Obama’s declaration in 2012 that if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were to deploy chemical weapons, it would be a “red line” prompting U.S. military action; Assad did so, but the U.S. response was relatively restrained. The episode is often cited by Republicans as evidence of Obama’s weakness in foreign affairs.

The situation in Venezuela hits close to home for many Cuban Americans, given Cuba’s ties to Maduro and Cuba’s own troubled history with an authoritarian leftist leadership. While Trump has drawn positive reviews from many Cuban Americans who see him as a welcome departure from Obama, he has a lot riding on the outcome on Venezuela, given the emphasis he has placed on it.

Cuban Americans in Florida, unlike other Hispanics, have tended to vote Republican, and their views could be significant if the 2020 election is close in Florida, as it usually is. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there by just 1.2 percentage points in 2016.

Trump won Cuban American voters 54 percent to 41 percent over Clinton, according to exit poll data. They made up six percent of the Florida electorate, the data show. But among other Hispanic voters, who accounted for 10 percent of the vote, Clinton beat Trump decisively, 71 percent to 26 percent.

Florida is home to many Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and other Latin Americans. Conservatives have been trying to expand their appeal to non-Cuban Hispanics the past few years through efforts like the Koch brothers-backed LIBRE Initiative, which promotes a free-market philosophy. Their success has been limited.

Democrats, who largely agree with the president that Maduro should step down and Guaidó should replace him, have become more critical of the Trump administration’s handling of the situation in Venezuela as the standoff has become prolonged.

“The more time that passes, the more difficult this situation is,” said Helena Poleo, a Florida-based Democratic consultant and a native Venezuelan. “People are still dying, and we don’t see a resolution in sight.”

Democrats have also raised concerns about Trump’s Cuba sanctions. Mucarsel-Powell said many of her Cuban American constituents have reached out with concerns about travel restrictions. “They are hurting the wrong people,” she said.

The question is whether the politics of Cuba in the U.S. are shifting. Fifty-seven percent of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County said they favor unrestricted travel to Cuba, according to a 2018 Florida International University survey, with support stronger among younger respondents than older ones. Respondents were split evenly over the embargo, with age again factoring heavily into the results.

Some Republicans argue that such trends have not been reflected in recent elections, pointing to the success of Republicans advocating a tightly restricted U.S.-Cuba relationship. And they give Trump high marks for his handling of Cuba and Venezuela. They credit him for setting the tone internationally and are willing to give him more time to reach a resolution.

“I think the administration has done, frankly, an admirable job,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

But they acknowledge the challenges in Venezuela — which are also sinking in for Trump himself — and are speaking carefully about the path ahead. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who recently traveled with the president on Air Force One and is advising him on Venezuela, recalled that Trump reacted sharply after learning that a senior opposition official had been arrested.

“I could tell that that upset him further,” Rubio said. The senator called the situation on the ground with Guaidó a “Venezuelan issue” and not an American initiative. The U.S. is “just supporting them,” he said.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) urged people to be forbearing. “This is not going to happen in a day. We might like it to happen in a day. It’s just not,” said Scott, who is in frequent contact with administration officials.

The trouble for Trump is that, politically speaking, time is not on his side.

“There’s a little patience left in the tank,” Cardenas said. “But not a year’s worth.”