President Donald Trump branded his efforts to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a crusade against international socialism, using a campaign-style speech in Miami on Monday to reignite the rhetoric of the Cold War as his administration continues to pursue regime change in the South American nation.
“We’re here to proclaim a new day is coming in Latin America,” Trump said during the speech at Florida International University. “Socialism is dying and liberty, prosperity and democracy are being reborn.”
The speech was an early and thinly veiled attempt to tie Trump’s potential Democratic opponents to socialism during his 2020 re-election campaign: Socialism, he told the assembled crowd, was merely an effort ― made “under the banner of progress” ― to control industries like health care, finance and others.
“America will never be a socialist country,” he proclaimed to cheers.
The speech, filled with rhetoric ripped straight from the Reagan era, also heralded a broader campaign across Latin America than even his administration’s initial actions on Venezuela have suggested.
Raging against “socialist tyranny,” Trump promised that “the twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere,” and suggested that the efforts to topple Maduro may not stop there: “The days of socialism are numbered not only in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua and Cuba as well.”
The Western Hemisphere, he said, would soon be the first socialism-free region of the world.
For now, the focus remains on Venezuela, where Maduro has clung to power despite the Trump administration’s efforts to oust him since January, when it, along with Canada and many Latin American democracies, recognized National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president moments after Guaidó declared himself as such.
Guaidó’s declaration and the Trump administration’s support for him came amid widespread protests against Maduro, who won a controversial election last May that was marred by irregularities and accusations that Maduro’s government had rigged the results. The Venezuelan opposition, along with the U.S., European Union, and some governments in Latin America, refused to accept the result as legitimate.
Support for Maduro has eroded since 2014 amid the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, which has led to spiraling inflation and food, water and medical shortages, according to human rights observers. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, according to the United Nations.
In February, the White House toughened sanctions on members of the Maduro government and Venezuela’s state-owned oil company in an effort to further strangle the country’s economy and break the will of Maduro and his supporters.
That hasn’t happened: Maduro has held onto power, with much of the military’s top brass maintaining their support. That has fueled concerns among Guaidó’s supporters and officials in countries like Colombia and Brazil who assumed there was “a more developed strategy” for toppling Maduro, Bloomberg reported. In the U.S., former officials told The Wall Street Journal that the White House and its advisers thought bringing down Maduro would be “a 24-hour operation.”
Trump’s speech, and his decision to turn Venezuela and socialism into an early campaign issue, came against that backdrop, and he directly threatened members of the Venezuelan military on Monday, urging them to abandon Maduro or else.
“There are members of the Venezuelan military still barely supporting this failed dictatorship,” Trump said. “They are risking their future, they are risking their lives and Venezuela’s future.”
“We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open,” Trump said.
Even before the speech, Venezuela experts had worried that the administration’s increasingly political calls for Maduro’s ouster might only bolster his position and undermine attempts to address Venezuela’s ongoing political and humanitarian crises.
“The more the U.S. makes this about Trump versus Maduro, the more that plays into Maduro’s hands,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office for Latin America, a D.C.-based think tank. “It makes it easier for him to paint himself as a victim of imperialist menace.”
The U.S. already lacks credibility in a region where it has a long history of backing efforts to oust political leaders it dislikes, including in Venezuela, where the Bush administration was linked to a 2002 effort to conduct a coup against Chávez.
Maduro has denied that Venezuela is suffering food shortages or undergoing any semblance of a humanitarian crisis, despite doctors reporting children dying from malnutrition and widely shared images of empty shelves at grocery stores. He has also reportedly used special police forces to crack down on protests and dissent.
But pro-government protests have also occurred, and Maduro and his supporters have painted Guaidó’s self-declared legitimacy, and the U.S. backing of him, as little more than another attempted coup.
Trump’s actions have played into Maduro’s hands, said Temir Porras Ponceleón, a former adviser to Chávez who is now a critic of Maduro’s government.
“This is a very, very public regime change strategy,” Porras, who is now a visiting professor at Sciences Po, Paris, said. “The involvement of the U.S. administration makes it easier for the Maduro government to depict it as a U.S.-led plan to achieve regime change in Venezuela. That doesn’t make things easier. It doesn’t solve the political problem.”
Last month, Trump appointed Elliott Abrams as the White House’s special envoy to Venezuela. A veteran of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, Abrams backed efforts to overthrow multiple governments and has been linked to cover-ups of human rights violations and potential war crimes in Latin America during the 1980s, at the height of the U.S. governments efforts to prevent the rise of leftist governments in the region. Abrams reportedly backed the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, though he has denied those claims.
The United States last week used military aircraft to deliver what it described as humanitarian aid to Venezuela’s border with Colombia, even as Maduro promised he would block its entry into the country.
The aid package, though, appears to be little more than a propaganda effort from a U.S. government that has historically used the cover of humanitarian assistance to bolster regime change efforts in Latin America.
The U.S. government ignored urgings from the United Nations and International Red Cross that the attempted delivery risked “politicizing” vital aid those organizations and other countries with stronger diplomatic ties to Venezuela were already delivering, and the U.S. quickly turned Maduro’s refusal into a convenient photo opportunity: On Feb. 6, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted a picture of a supposedly-blockaded bridge between Colombia and Venezuela to draw attention to Maduro’s refusal to accept aid.
The bridge in the photo, however, has been closed closed since construction on it completed in 2016, and has never been used by those fleeing Venezuela or international groups delivering aid to the country.
Trump reiterated Monday that Maduro should allow the aid to enter Venezuela.
But aid delivery has “been done quietly and under the radar,” Ramsey said, adding that “it’s really important that any aid efforts are coordinated with these actors who are already on the ground.”
Even some who support the administration’s actions on Venezuela have acknowledged that Trump has “zero credibility when it comes to human rights concerns,” and Trump’s governance of his own nation has also undermined his purported cause in Venezuela.
Maduro blasted Trump as a “white supremacist” in an interview with the BBC last week, adding that the White House is ruled by the Ku Klux Klan. National Security Adviser John Bolton was also roundly criticized Monday when he praised Colombia for accepting Venezuelan refugees at a time when Trump has attempted to close the U.S. borders to refugees and immigrants, especially those from Latin America.
Trump discussed Venezuela with Colombian President Iván Duque during a White House meeting last week, and Maduro has said he would meet with Abrams or other Trump officials. But even as Trump intensified his rhetoric against Maduro on Monday, his administration has found itself somewhat isolated in its approach to Venezuela on some fronts.
The Lima Group, a coalition of Latin American democracies and Canada that also backed Guaidó, has said it would not support any military intervention in Venezuela, an option that experts see as unlikely but that the Trump administration, by contrast, has refused to take off the table. Top Trump allies in the region, like right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, have said military use is not acceptable.
In early February, meanwhile, a collection of eight European Union nations and three Latin American countries ― all of whom have stronger diplomatic ties with Maduro’s government than the U.S. ― began talks to “forge a common international approach to support a peaceful, political, democratic and Venezuelan-owned resolution to the crisis ... through free, transparent and credible presidential elections, in accordance with the Venezuelan Constitution.”
The United States is not a part of the group, largely due to its lack of historical credibility in the region.
“It is clear that the United States government cannot be a member of this contact group,” the Washington Office for Latin America said last week, “because the U.S. government lacks the positioning to lead a negotiated solution.”
Trump’s continued escalation, though, could threaten any ongoing talks, said Porras, who has warned that U.S. involvement carries substantial risks, including the potential for civil war.
“The more time that passes,” he said, “the more you see that everyone here is playing with fire.”