President Donald Trump is dancing on a razor’s edge in Venezuela.
Three months after the U.S. backed an uprising in its backyard, Trump appears closer than ever to toppling one of the three legs in what his administration has called the western hemisphere’s “Troika of Tyranny.” On Tuesday, Venezuelan National Assembly leader and self-declared Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó called on Venezuelans to rise up against Nicolás Maduro and, according to the U.S., nearly convinced the embattled ruler to flee to Cuba.
Regime change in Venezuela would be a momentous victory for Trump. But after backing an outgunned and outmanned opposition leader and bluffing for months at the possibility of military intervention, Trump has also backed himself into something of a corner.
He’s risked creating dangerous expectations that he’ll use force if push comes to shove in a country where both Russia and Cuba are deeply invested. And with the Venezuelan military literally driving over protesters in the streets, there is already pressure building for him to send in troops.
“War is a last resort. However, I think if there’s any attempt at killing people on the streets because they’re demonstrating against Maduro, if that occurs we have to do something,” said Bay of Pigs Veterans Association President Johnny Lopez de la Cruz, who was among the U.S.-backed troops who covertly invaded Cuba in 1961, only to be abandoned on the beach by John F. Kennedy. “I’m pretty sure the U.S. has learned the lesson of the Bay of Pigs, raising the expectations and then at the last minute taking away the support. That’s something I don’t think is going to happen this time.”
The likelihood of military intervention in Venezuela still seems remote. Trump tweeted Tuesday about ratcheting up sanctions — not force — against Cuba, which has worked to keep Maduro in power. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued to talk about a peaceful transition of power during a Tuesday evening interview with CNN, in which he said that Maduro was poised to flee the country on his private plane until Russia convinced him to stay in Venezuela.
But for all of Trump’s efforts to shape the uprising in the poverty-stricken country, a peaceful transition is not entirely in his control. And at least one of the president’s allies is urging the U.S. to position its troops on the border in case Guaidó needs all the force of the American military.
“President Trump should immediately position American military assets to be ready to deliver aid to the people and defend freedom and democracy as well as U.S. national security interests in our hemisphere,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott said Tuesday. “This is a fight against Cuba, Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah who are all in Venezuela right now and want to inflict pain and torture on the people. The time for talking is over. It’s time for action.”
Trump’s high-stakes gambit in backing Guaidó has largely paid off. Fire-brand rhetoric around Maduro’s regime has endeared Trump with a large exile Hispanic community and put Democrats on their heels in the country’s largest swing state. National Security Advisor John Bolton, meanwhile, has made repeated visits to Miami to rip what he calls the “Troika of Tyranny” — Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — and Trump stopped in Miami in February to proclaim 2019 the “twilight of socialism” in the western hemisphere.
It’s been an effective strategy in Florida, where top-of-ticket races are decided by thin margins and just shy of 20 percent of Florida’s 13.4 million registered voters are Hispanic. And Guaidó’s ascension — made possible by Trump’s support — has received bipartisan acclaim in Miami, which possibly helped keep Democrats from running up the score in Democrat-heavy South Florida this past November.
“South Florida is different than anyplace else,” Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart said Tuesday. “The Nicaraguans are there. Why? Because of [President Daniel] Ortega. The Colombians are there. Why? Because of the FARC and the ELN [guerrillas]. The Cubans are there. Why? Because of the Castro regime. The Venezuelans are there. Why? Because of [Hugo] Chavez and Maduro. That’s the reality. It is the center of exile for the hemisphere and therefore there is infinite knowledge and sensitivity to the damage that these regimes have done.”
That passion poured out in South Florida Tuesday morning as news spread of Guaidó’s call to arms. In the Venezuelan exile community of Doral, a Rosary was called at Doral Catholic Church. Hundreds flocked to El Arepazo Original, a Venezuelan restaurant where live images of gunfire and tear gas canisters were broadcast around the clock.
“We’ve waited 20 years for this moment,” said Yuri Ouchi, who spent the day at El Arepazo sending information to isolated relatives in Venezuela.
But the news wasn’t all positive. By mid-afternoon, former presidential candidate and political prisoner Leopoldo López, who escaped house arrest to appear on video with Guaidó Tuesday morning, checked his family into the Chilean Embassy for protection. And there was little evidence that military members were fleeing to Guaidó’s side, said Brian Fonseca, a Venezuelan military expert and Florida International University professor.
“’I’m not seeing any real or serious indications that the military is fracturing,” said Fonseca, a former Marine and U.S. Southern Command intelligence analyst who now serves as the director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
Troubling video surfaced of an armored car driven by pro Maduro forces driving into and over a crowd of demonstrators in the streets of Caracas. Bolton later told reporters that at least 40 people have died since protests began in February.
The U.S. has repeatedly warned that military force is an option in the country. But Fonseca believes Trump lost all credibility after U.S. Envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams admitted during a prank call recorded by two Russian nationals that Trump was dangling military action as an empty threat. Now, Fonseca says with concern, “maybe one of the few ways to regain that credibility is the actual use of the military.”
Still, with a peaceful transition a possibility, Venezuelan exiles in South Florida were encouraged by Guaidó’s move Tuesday. After weeks of non-action that followed an ill-fated attempt two months ago to push humanitarian aid into the country, Venezuelan expat and Democratic political consultant Helena Poleo said Trump’s support for Guaidó “was beginning to look like a campaign stunt.”
“If this ends up today in Maduro releasing his grip on power, then this is a huge, huge win for the Trump administration. And this is something they’ll absolutely use in 2020, he and anybody else running for office under that flag,” she said. “For South Florida, it will mark a huge change, even if the outcome is not what we wanted. I think it will help unless — a big unless — this could turn into a Bay of Pigs. So they have to be careful.”
The Bay of Pigs invasion, which took place this month in Cuba 58 years ago, was planned as a covert action by the administrations of Dwight Eisenhower and then John F. Kennedy and was intended to appear as if Cuban exiles had planned their own coup to topple Fidel Castro. Kennedy called off air strikes after the invasion had already begun, dooming the operation to failure and effectively turning generations of Cuban exiles against the Democratic Party.
In Venezuela, just as it was in Cuba, there are also Russian and communist Cuba interests at play, which poises tricky politics for a president who has spent the last two years arguing that he’s tough on Cuba and not in the pocket of Russian President Vladmir Putin. At the same time, Trump also faces the fact that he’s led an international strategy of isolationism, and that his voters outside Florida may oppose increased U.S. involvement in South America.
“There’s no doubt the entire Venezuela situation is a political tinder box,” said Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi. “If it explodes, there’s going to be fallout on all sides, not just in Latin America. From a political vantage point, Trump could be perceived as the JFK of the Venezuelan community.”
For now, though, Trump’s administration is striking a moderate tone, even as Guaidó’s uprising showed signs of waning Tuesday evening. Bolton — who appeared in Miami this month with López de la Cruz to speak on the 58th anniversary of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion — downplayed the chances of Maduro’s military firing on their own people.
And he continued to hold out hope for a successful change in the presidency, even while waving a stick.
“We want as our principal objective the peaceful transfer of power,” Bolton said. “But I will say again as the president has said from the outset, and that Nicolas Maduro and those supporting him, particularly those who are not Venezuelan should know, is all options are on the table.”
McClatchy reporters Tara Copp and Alex Daugherty, and Miami Herald reporters Kyra Gurney and Jim Wyss contributed to this report.