In Miami, Donald Trump ramps up pressure on Venezuela

Trump addressed the Venezuelan people in an effort to further increase pressure on embattled ruler Nicolás Maduro to flee and end a blockade of shipments of medicine and food sitting on the Colombian border
Published Feb. 19, 2019|Updated Feb. 19, 2019

President Donald Trump declared 2019 as the “twilight of socialism” in the western hemisphere Monday during a speech in Miami and cast impending regime change in Venezuela as a harbinger of things to come in Cuba and Nicaragua.

Appearing in the capital of the Americas, Trump addressed the Venezuelan people in an effort to further increase pressure on embattled ruler Nicolás Maduro to flee and end a blockade of shipments of medicine and food sitting on the Colombian border. He spoke directly to military leaders who continue to support Maduro, warning that the U.S. has identified their offshore holdings and is prepared to use force, if necessary.

“We seek a peaceful transition of power. But all options are open,” Trump said, ominously. “If you choose this path, you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out. You’ll lose everything.”

Trump’s speech, delivered at Florida International University, reflects the peaking U.S. involvement in the turmoil gripping Venezuela.

Once the wealthiest country in South America, the nation is now spiraling in the throes of hyperinflation and economic collapse — problems exacerbated at least in the short term by an ongoing power struggle. Congress pushed economic sanctions against Maduro months before National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó in January declared himself as Venezuela’s president in the wake of problematic elections. And Trump, with the advice of Miami Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio, has been amping up pressure ever since.

He issued crippling sanctions on Jan. 28 that prevent state-owned oil company PDVSA from conducting business with U.S. corporations except under special conditions. Citgo, PDVSA’s U.S. refining arm, remains in operation, but profits have been funneled into an escrow account that the Trump administration plans to make available to Venezuela only after Guaidó takes full control.

For now, Guaidó has set up a parallel government recognized by more than 30 nations as the legitimate administration in Venezuela. Before Trump spoke Monday, Guaidó appeared on video and spoke to the crowd of roughly 1,000 packed into a closed-off area of FIU’s Ocean Bank Arena.

“Now there is a debate between the democracy and dictatorship — one between life and death. Today this fight is existential,” Guaidó said. “The moment is now for change in Venezuela with determination and pressure from within Venezuela.”

Guaidó’s presidency is not universally recognized. The United Nations and European Union continue to view Maduro as the country’s president, and activists on the left have accused Trump of adopting decades of hawkish behavior by the U.S. in South America. Outside the FIU Ocean Bank Arena, a crowd of several dozen marched in protest, with some waving signs with Guaidó’s face crossed out, and reading “No U.S. Coup in Venezuela.”

“This is not about democracy. This is about special interests,” said Yadira Escobar, a 31-year-old local radio personality representing the anti-interventionist group Hands Off Venezuela. Other protesters said they support Trump’s actions in Venezuela, but oppose the president.

Inside the arena, the crowd chanted “Libertad!” and roared at predictions of Raul Castro’s downfall in Cuba, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Throughout the afternoon, Florida’s U.S. senators warned that a deadline set Saturday by Guaidó for Maduro to allow aid into the country will be a tipping point in the struggle for leadership of Venezuela.

Maduro, unwilling to relinquish power, has been using the military to block trucks carrying food and medicine — both in severely short supply — from crossing the Tienditas Bridge from Colombia and through the northwestern border of Venezuela.

Trump, as he did Monday, has suggested the U.S. might use force to push the materials through. But National Security Adviser John Bolton told reporters in Miami that there is no plan to use the U.S. military to force the aid into Venezuela. Instead, he said the press will either show the aid getting into the country, or reveal Maduro for a thug who blocks food and medicine from millions of hungry and ill people.

Either way, he said, Guaidó wins.

To be sure, the U.S. has hoped to avoid confrontation by encouraging military and political leaders to abandon Maduro. Last week, even as it implemented new sanctions against Maduro associates, the Treasury Department said it would consider lifting economic sanctions against individuals who took steps to restore democratic order in the country (code for pushing out Maduro).

“If I were a Maduro loyalist now, I would be very worried at what the person on my right and the person on my left are saying to the opposition,” Bolton told reporters. “The national assembly has indicated certainly for military leaders there could be an amnesty for those who come over to the opposition, something they and their family should think [over] very carefully.”

Rubio, who was part of a Miami delegation that accompanied a 180-ton United States Agency for International Development shipment to Cúcuta, Colombia, over the weekend and visited the Tienditas bridge, reiterated a warning Monday that he gave in Colombia.

“On Saturday, you will have to choose who you are truly loyal to: the people, or a decrepit and dying criminal regime,” Rubio said. “They will have to choose whether to spend the rest of their lives as prisoners or fugitives from international justice if they hurt the people of Venezuela or stand in the way of aid.”

Trump’s assertiveness on Venezuela has been one of the few bright spots in his administration in recent months. His efforts to topple Maduro have been welcomed by both Republicans and Democrats, and have allowed him to focus attention away from the gridlock in the Capitol. Florida Republicans have also recognized the situation as an opportunity to make inroads with Florida’s Hispanic voters, a group that, despite its diversity, largely leans Democratic but also abhors authoritarianism and socialism.

Still, Democrats criticized him for doing too little to help Venezuelan exiles living in the U.S. In a conference call with reporters, Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation again called on Trump to extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans, and accused Trump of “using the suffering of Venezuelans to score points.”

U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, who has filed a bill to extend TPS for Venezuelans, said deportations of Venezuelans increased from 182 in 2006 to 248 in 2017, and that there’s a backlog of 70,000 petitions for asylum from Venezuelan exiles that has accumulated over the last three years. Currently, 150,000 Venezuelans living in the U.S. would qualify to stay in the country legally should Trump choose to extend TPS by executive order.

“He simply shouldn’t come to South Florida this afternoon without extending TPS and ending deportations,” Shalala said Monday morning.

If that message is resonating, it wasn’t apparent at FIU.

Trump cast himself as the leader of the Americas before an enthusiastic crowd. And, in an arena not far from Doral — home to thousands of Venezuelan exiles — and Sweetwater — home to thousand of Nicaraguan immigrants — he promised that the freedoms they enjoy in the U.S. will be returning to the countries they left behind.

“We know what freedom can do in Cuba because we’re seeing that future right here in Miami,” Trump said. “We’ve seen that future in Sweetwater ... We are going to see what the people will do in Caracas, Managua and Havana.”

-- David Smiley and Martin Vassolo wrote this story. McClatchy DC reporter Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.