WASHINGTON — The White House said Friday it has information that individuals linked to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro have incited violence at protests in the United States spurred by George Floyd’s death.
U.S. Sen Rick Scott also highlighted a similar report earlier in the week, promising Wednesday on Twitter that the U.S. government would crack down on any operatives tied to Latin American dictators who instigate conflict in Miami as part of the protests.
Neither offered proof of the allegations, and the White House declined to discuss “non-open source information” that had led to their assessment. Scott cited a Diario Las Américas news report linking back to a blog.
“We are aware of efforts by individuals linked to America’s adversaries, including the illegitimate regime of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, to instigate conflict, help incite violence, and divide Americans by exploiting peaceful protests,” a senior Trump administration official told McClatchy and the Miami Herald, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the intelligence matter.
Asked for additional, non-public information to back up their claim, the senior administration official said, “We are unable to further discuss any non-open source information.”
Publicly, there is little evidence to back up the claims. Miami and Miami-Dade police said they were unaware of the allegations. The FBI and U.S Attorney’s office aren’t commenting. The State Department said that any investigations into domestic protests are not within its purview.
And with the exception of Scott, South Florida’s political leadership — which typically denounces any attempt by Maduro allies to interfere in U.S. politics — isn’t saying anything.
“I think if someone has been arrested and detained, there’s no reason why that information can’t come out,” said Frank Mora, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere under former President Barack Obama. “Who are these people? Have they been indicted? How do we know that link?”
Mora said the government wouldn’t be able to share intelligence or methods, but should be able to disclose if anyone arrested for inciting violence has direct ties to the Maduro regime.
“This administration is not shy about using this politically in the current environment,” Mora said. “I’m not saying that’s what’s happening now but they certainly have done and used it in a cynical political way in the past.”
Reports that operatives from Cuba and Venezuela had possibly infiltrated protests in Miami first surfaced Monday on Primer Informe, a blog run by former El Nuevo Herald reporter Casto Ocando. According to the blog post by Ocando, FBI counter-terrorism agents had detained and questioned people in Miami and other cities who admitted to having been paid by activists to participate in the protests, and were investigating possible ties to Venezuela and Cuba.
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Ocando’s report was picked up by Diario Las Américas. Ocando did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There have been signs of Chavistas and other leftists at Miami’s daily protests. A Univision reporter filmed a man Sunday carrying the flag of Nicaragua’s Sandinista National LIberation Front in downtown. Another video was posted Sunday of a man wearing a hat designed to look like the Venezuelan flag smashing a hand-held cooler into a parked car.
And a woman participating in Sunday’s march, identified by the Miami-based En Vivo TV as Hellen Peña, acknowledged when pressed that she was a supporter of the late-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who recently traveled to Venezuela to participate in an “international brigade” for young people. The official You Tube channel of Maduro’s foreign ministry posted a video of Peña in February, in which she says “the Venezuelan state cares about its people but U.S. sanctions have affected [Venezuela] so much that it is difficult for it to care for the Venezuelans. They have access to free education and public health; we have nothing of the sort in the U.S.”
In the video, Peña is identified as a member of the third international brigade “Che Guevara” that attended a meeting in Venezuela.
The reports — coming as the U.S. Department of Justice says it is looking into whether extremist groups are instigating violence amid otherwise peaceful protests — caught the attention of Scott, whose tweet earlier this week showed Peña and warned of reports “that the Maduro regime and other LatAm dictators are supporting violent instigators at protests in the Miami area.”
“Senator Scott is very concerned with reports of protestors in Miami with ties to Latin American regimes and dictators like Nicolas Maduro and organizations like the FMLN,” Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said in a statement to the Miami Herald. “Senator Scott hopes that the FBI and federal authorities continue to investigate this matter and that anyone linked to acts of violence and destruction be held accountable.”
The FMLN, or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, is a leftist political party in El Salvador.
Asked for the source of Scott’s concerns, Hartline emailed a link to the Diario Las Américas story that reported on presence of leftists at the Miami rallies and linked to Ocando’s blog.
The office of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, now the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a high-profile critic of Cuba and Venezuela’s governments, declined to comment. Rubio, who often posts on social media about covert activists by Venezuela and Cuba, has not said anything publicly on any alleged efforts by the two countries to sow dissent in Miami.
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said federal authorities had evidence of extremist groups instigating violence amid protests. “We’re also seeing foreign actors playing all sides to exacerbate the violence,” Barr said at a press conference in Washington.
Asked to elaborate on that point, Barr and FBI Director Christopher Wray did not name specific countries, and focused their comments on “disinformation” campaigns, and social media.
The FBI declined to comment. “Per FBI policy, we would not confirm or deny the existence of this type of investigation,” said agency spokesman Michael D. Leverock. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida did not respond to a request for comment.
Miami and Miami-Dade police said they were unaware of the allegations. Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina has publicly stated that most people arrested in Miami on Saturday, a first day of protests in the city, during which arson fires were set and officers clashed with demonstrators, were from outside the city. But he said in a text message that he had “not yet seen any evidence” of foreign operatives inciting violence.
Miami Herald reporter Charles Rabin contributed to this report.
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Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times
WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.
WHAT ARE POLICE USING? A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests.
WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.
WHY DO POLICE CLASH WITH PROTESTERS? We looked at law enforcement rules. They urge de-escalation but only to a point.
HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.
SOME NEW, SOME LONGTIME FAVORITES: Here are 15 black-owned restaurants and food businesses in Tampa Bay