On a visit to Miami on Friday, President Donald Trump portrayed himself as tough on drugs and a champion of Venezuelans, at a time when U.S. policy towards the troubled South American nation has not yielded the expected results and polls show him falling behind his Democratic rival in Florida.
“We are going to be fighting for Venezuelans,” Trump said during a round-table discussion at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Doral in the afternoon. “Cuba and Venezuela, we have it very much under control.”
Trump arrived at Southcom, joined by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad F. Wolf, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Republican Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, to receive a briefing on the results of a counter-narcotics operation in the Caribbean launched in March.
“This operation has been incredibly successful,” he said during brief remarks in which he referred to the “beautiful equipment” sent to the Caribbean region.
The increase in U.S. military presence in ships, planes and security forces operating in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific has shown significant results, said the head of Southcom, Navy Adm. Craig Faller.
Faller said the operation has disrupted 122 metric tons of cocaine heading to the U.S. and more than 18,000 pounds of marijuana.
On display at the center of Southcom’s theater room was what a press officer said was a million dollars’ worth of cocaine.
The military operation is aimed at fighting drug cartels that want to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis, but also to deny funds going to the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, O’Brien said.
“For years, Venezuela has flooded the U.S. with cocaine,” he said, adding that the administration would continue its “maximum pressure campaign” against Maduro.
O’Brien took also used his time at the round-table to highlight Trump’s “commitment” to the Venezuelan people.
“He asks almost every day how things are going in Venezuela,” the senior official said. “For the people in Venezuela, the president continues to stand with you” and interim Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó.
The president arrived in Doral, the home of a large Venezuelan community, at a critical moment for his Latin American policy. Despite efforts by the Venezuelan opposition, led by Guaidó, who has the support of the United States and almost 60 countries, Maduro remains in power with the aid of Cuba, Russia, and more recently, Iran.
Neither a flurry of sanctions against both Venezuela and Cuba, nor a diplomatic proposal for a peaceful transition presented by the State Department, has persuaded Maduro and his close allies to leave power. And despite the harsh rhetoric, the administration has made it clear it has no appetite for another military adventure.
But even during this impasse, many Venezuelans who have supported Trump voiced their discontent when he recently left open the possibility of a meeting with Maduro. Trump later said he would only meet with the Venezuelan ruler to discuss his departure from power.
After visiting Southcom, Trump met with members of the Cuban and Venezuelan communities at the Doral Jesus Worship Center.
Venezuela policy resonates with many Cuban-American Republican voters, a bloc that mostly voted for Trump in 2016. In Florida, a swing state where electoral victories are narrow, Cuban and Venezuelan voters’ support could be crucial.
But the alleged comments of an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, questioning the existence of ethnic enclaves like Little Havana, created some friction a few days before the visit.
Flanked by Cuban dissident Rosa María Payá and longtime Cuban exile activist Orlando Gutierrez, Trump quickly reiterated that his administration “stands with the people of Venezuela and Cuba.”
“We are standing with the righteous leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó,” he said. “And I ended the Obama-Biden sellout to the Castro regime,” he added. “What they did for Cubans was ridiculous.”
Several attendants thanked the president for his policies and keeping his promise to “fight socialism” in the region.
“You are what stands between capitalism and socialism,” said pastor Mario Bramnick.
“History will record you as the president who frees this hemisphere of socialism,” Díaz-Balart said. “These regimes would not survive another four years of President Trump.”
Some activists, like Ernesto Ackerman, head of the Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, pleaded directly to the president to “help the people of Venezuela to get rid of the narco-terrorists that have taken over our country.”
“We need your leadership,” he said.
Payá asked the president to indict Raul Castro, name the Communist Party as a terrorist organization and “cut all the funds” going to the regime.
As several activists told of their experiences fleeing from socialist countries and facing prosecution or poverty, Trump said his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, was “a puppet of Bernie Sanders, AOC and the radical left.”
“Nobody would be safe in a Biden America,” he said.
Trump’s interest in Hispanic voters was also evident this week when he signed an executive order Thursday “to improve Hispanic-American access to educational and economic opportunities.”
“The Hispanic faith leadership ... not only believes in you, but will deliver for you your reelection because we understand that you are the beacon of hope for the Hispanic community,” said Lourdes Aguirre, a representative of the evangelical community in Miami, at the signing of the executive order at the White House.
But the Venezuelan and Cuban communities are not monolithic, and as November looms, the Democratic Party is paying more attention to Hispanic voters in the state.
A few hours before Trump’s visit to Doral, the Florida Democratic Party organized a panel with Venezuelan and Cuban-American activists who criticized Trump’s policies.
“He’s going to sit down today with Venezuelan migrants; I saw his agenda. Is he willing to grant Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans?” asked Leopoldo Martinez Nucete, a Venezuelan member of Latino Victory. “Look beyond what he says — and assess and evaluate what he has done. He has done nothing to resolve this pandemic. Pretty much like he has done nothing — just talk — about Venezuela. He doesn’t care about Venezuelans.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres: @ngameztorres