The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s aggressive moves on Venezuela set up potential foreign policy victory — and a political win at home

President Trump has taken a consistently tough stance on the Maduro government in Venezuela.
President Trump has taken a consistently tough stance on the Maduro government in Venezuela. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Less than a month after he took office, President Trump issued a tough condemnation of the socialist government of Venezuela, startling both admirers and critics trying to get a bead on the new “America First” president’s scattershot foreign policy.

The statement followed an impromptu Oval Office meeting with the wife of a prominent imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader. In one of his first foreign policy tweets, Trump denounced Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and demanded the prisoner’s immediate release.

The two years of escalating sanctions, rhetorical jousting and occasional military threats that followed helped drive Venezuela further toward collapse. While Maduro remains, the emergence of opposition leader Juan Guaidó this week provided Trump with both a potential foreign policy victory and a desperately needed political win at home — particularly in Florida, a must-win state for his reelection campaign and home to an increasingly influential Venezuelan expatriate community.

After Wednesday’s U.S. recognition of Guaidó as interim president, the administration moved Friday to begin securing Venezuelan assets, including international reserves and the U.S.-based Citgo oil company, for his government. A new special envoy, retired senior diplomat Elliott Abrams, was named to lead what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela.”

The path to achieving that objective is unlikely to be smooth — with the possibility that Maduro could target U.S. diplomats on the ground there, or trap them without water or electricity in the embassy.

U.S. diplomats hunker down in Venezuela amid standoff with Maduro

But so far, for the president who promised to eschew foreign involvements and put America first, there is little apparent downside.

With few exceptions, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are largely united in support of Trump’s recognition of Guaidó. The position is especially popular in South Florida, where the traditionally pro-Republican Cuban American community is closely attuned to the cause of ousting a regime that has aligned itself with communist Cuba.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an influential voice on Latin American policy who requested Trump’s early 2017 Oval Office meeting with the wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López, said he was “very proud” of Pompeo’s diplomatic engagement with the Venezuelan opposition. The Trump administration, he said, “deserves lots of credit” for backing the anti-Maduro cause, especially because the president and his advisers had “been careful not to act without the consensus of our democratic partners” in the region.

“What you’re seeing now is democracy once again on the march. A big part of that is because of the leadership of the United States,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who has been huddling with White House officials, Rubio and others to hammer out Latin American policies.

Political analysts say Venezuelan, Cuban and other Latin American voters in swing states like Florida are closely watching what happens in Caracas.

Chris Miles, a Cuban American GOP political consultant in Miami, said middle-class Venezuelans settling in that city often come with assets and political know-how that make them a political force, like Cubans before them.

“We’ve seen this movie before, we know how it works,” he said. “We are just watching how it unfolds in a different way.”

“If I were Trump, I would be looking at my reelection path as certainly needing Florida,” said a former congressional aide familiar with aspects of the administration’s Venezuela strategy.

Some Democrats do not see Trump’s actions as more than a welcome blip on his record and are skeptical of the lawmakers cheering him.

“This is not about credit. This is about policy,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), whose district has the largest concentration of Venezuelan Americans in the country. “I know that the Venezuelan community is glad to have his support . . . I would not take that to mean that somehow now Donald Trump gets credit for supporting every other dictator on planet Earth.”

But both Wasserman Schultz and Diaz-Balart agreed this week that for now, at least, Venezuela is not a political issue between them.

“There isn’t any daylight,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview, shortly after meeting with Venezuelan American leaders in her district. “Maduro needs to go — that’s the overwhelming sentiment from the majority of members of Congress, from both parties.”

While the attention the administration paid to Venezuela since that initial Oval Office meeting was sporadic amid myriad other crises, it was consistently tough.

Pressed by Rubio and others — as well as Vice President Pence, a devout Christian whose own constituency saw an ideological and human rights imperative in Venezuela — Trump needed little encouragement.

But there always seemed a point beyond which the president was unwilling to go. Even as he periodically warned that the U.S. military could take down Maduro if necessary, the Pentagon made clear that it was uninterested in opening a conflict in this hemisphere. Maduro’s closest and strongest ally has been Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, whom Trump has been reluctant to confront. And the prospect of hitting Venezuela with sanctions where it would really hurt — in the oil industry that has kept the country alive, largely with exports to the United States — also risked economic damage in this country.

American honeymooner jailed in Venezuela is freed

Trump said little about Latin America during his election campaign, and as president he canceled three planned visits there before attending the Group of 20 economic meeting in Buenos Aires late last year. The headline of that visit was a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the U.S.-China trade war.

Still, Trump repeatedly returned to the Venezuela issue, including during the midterm election season last year, when he accused Democrats of welcoming Maduro-style socialism. In Florida, Trump said that unless Republican Ron DeSantis became governor, “Florida will become another Venezuela, and that is not good.”

DeSantis, who credited his victory to Trump’s endorsement, joined Rubio and new Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) at the White House on Tuesday, the day before Trump’s diplomatic break with Maduro’s government. DeSantis later said that he advised Trump to “seize the moment” by recognizing Guaidó and that the two discussed the ties between Maduro and the Castro regime in Cuba.

A Rubio aide said, however, that Trump’s decision had already been made. “If Guaidó said he was going to assert himself as provisional president,” a move the opposition leader made the following day, “the administration was set to recognize him. The conversation was more along the lines of how do we make sure the United States is doing everything it possibly can to assist — recognizing him, ensuring the international community did the same, what sort of assistance could be necessary, what actions would be taken at the [Organization of American States] and the [United Nations] Security Council,” said the aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the closed-door meeting.

How the administration goes about making sure the changes in Venezuela stick is forefront in the minds of Venezuelans and other Latin Americans in Florida, even as both parties eye their votes.

In the kitchen of Pepito’s Plaza, a Venezuelan restaurant inside a gas station in Doral, a city with a large population of expats, four employees intently watched a CNN update on Venezuela on Thursday.

“Even though our country has not had great relations with the U.S., the American government is showing it supports democracy and liberty, especially for Venezuelans,” said Glorialba Reville, a 21-year-old food server.

Reville left Venezuela last May, joining her three brothers who were already in Doral. Her parents came two months later, she said. In Venezuela, “there is no quality of life and no future,” Reville said. “You can’t walk down the street or roll down the windows of your car without being in fear that you might get kidnapped or killed.”

Ernesto Ackerman, founder of the Miami-based grass-roots organization Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, said expatriates in South Florida, whether Republicans or Democrats, will remember the Trump administration’s actions at the ballot box in 2020. “After nearly eight years of near-total silence from the Obama administration, Trump is taking a strong, definitive stand against Maduro.”

Ackerman believes that the president not only solidified support among Venezuelan Americans who voted for him in 2016 but also gained votes from those who disagree with his foreign policy.

On the other hand, Carlos Pereira, a Venezuelan American Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a Florida state House seat and for Doral City Council, said it is too early to gauge the impact Trump’s aggressive posturing will have on his fellow expats a year from now.

“From an emotional point of view, what Trump did is great, and we should thank him for it,” Pereira said, but “it may well be a dog-and-pony show to solidify support among Republican Hispanic voters who want to make Venezuela great again.”

Alvarado reported from Miami. Karoun Demirjian in Washington, Anthony Faiola in Rio de Janeiro and Rachelle Krieger in Miami contributed to this report.