Update: After this story was published, Diaz-Balart backpedaled and blamed reporters for "misinterpreting" his statements.
In a statement sure to remind critics of the runup to the Iraq War in 2003, longtime Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart suggested on Fox News last night that Russian agents in Venezuela could strike the United States with nuclear bombs. Diaz-Balart, part of the coalition of Florida lawmakers advising Donald Trump on Latin American issues, provided no evidence to back up his claims.
"The United States — the closest we ever came to nuclear war was because the Russians put missiles — right? — nuclear missiles in Cuba," Diaz-Balart told Tucker Carlson.
"So you're saying the Russians are going to put nuclear missiles in Venezuela?" Carlson then asked.
"What I'm suggesting is that they're already there," the congressman cryptically responded. He then moved on without explaining himself or offering any support for his statement.
It's unclear whether Diaz-Balart was referring to "the Russians" or the "nuclear bombs" being "there" in Venezuela. Diaz-Balart's spokeswoman, Laura Hernandez, did not respond to a message from New Times last night asking the congressman to clarify his remarks.
No other news outlet has reported that the Venezuelans now have weapons of mass destruction. Instead, news agencies noted in December that Russia flew two nuclear-capable bombers to the South American country. But neither the U.S. government nor independent news agencies reported that the bombers actually held nuclear weapons.
Earlier yesterday, Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó announced he had freed right-wing agitator Leopoldo Lopez from political imprisonment and was attempting a coup on strongman Nicolás Maduro's regime.
But Guaidó did not appear to have large-scale support from the Venezuelan military. Instead, Maduro's forces violently cracked down on protesters; one military truck drove directly into a crowd of people. By nightfall, it was clear the attempt had failed — Lopez sought asylum in the Chilean embassy in Caracas, and Guaidó fled to an undisclosed location. (He has since posted multiple videos from a Twitter account labeled "@Presidencia_VE.")
As the uprising continued, Florida Sen. Rick Scott said he wanted the U.S. to "pre-position" the military and prepare to invade the country. Diaz-Balart previously has said he supports Scott's calls for military intervention.
After the main burst of violence subsided last night, politicians on both sides began making outlandish threats in the press. Maduro promised to prosecute anyone who took part in the coup attempt. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed he had intelligence showing Maduro planned to flee Venezuela but was talked out of the plan by Russian advisers.
The rest of Diaz-Balart's Fox interview was similarly bonkers. Carlson opened the segment by asking Diaz-Balart how intervening in Venezuela would help Americans. Diaz-Balart claimed repeatedly that multiple state actors in Venezuela presented a "huge national security threat" to the United States. He said he and Scott agreed Venezuela poses a threat to America.
Most independent foreign policy experts do not believe Venezuela presents any direct danger to the U.S., although they do warn an American invasion would be a bloodbath and an Iraq-style quagmire. The nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative states that "Venezuela possesses almost no nuclear infrastructure" and "little nuclear expertise." Even the Center for the National Interest, a right-leaning think tank, this month called the presence of Russian nuclear-capable bombers "a joke, not a threat."
Furthermore, Diaz-Balart claimed that in addition to Venezuelan troops, the nation contains "25,000 Cubans," "Hezbollah," "Russian troops," an "Iranian presence," a "Chinese presence," and, most bafflingly, "real Middle Easterners with real, legal Venezuelan passports we have found." (His spokeswoman did not respond to New Times' request to clarify what that last statement meant.)
Americans have made similar claims about Islamist terror cells in South America for decades. Seventeen years ago, U.S. diplomats in the George W. Bush administration began warning that Muslim terror groups were allegedly gaining a foothold in Venezuela and other large countries. Earlier this year, Venezuela's own former intelligence chief told the New York Times that Hezbollah — a Lebanese Islamist paramilitary group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. — had held meetings with representatives for Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Pompeo has also claimed Hezbollah has "active cells" in Venezuela and that the nation knowingly allows Hezbollah members to traffic arms and drugs through the country.
But critics have noted for years that no real Muslim terror activity has ever been reported in South America. New York University Professor Greg Grandin, an expert in Latin American politics, wrote in 2017 that "since 9/11, no terrorist attack carried out by radicalized Islam originating in Latin America has, as far as I know, taken place."
Still, Diaz-Balart used the imagery to scare Carlson's viewers.
"So is that a potential risk for the national security interests of the United States? Absolutely," he said. If the U.S. does not intervene militarily, he went on, it would allegedly give a "green light" to Russians, Chinese, and Iranian military agents to increase their activities in the Western Hemisphere, which he labeled "our hemisphere." This, he maintained, would endanger America. Even Carlson was skeptical.
"Yeah — no?" Carlson responded. "Are you suggesting they're going to invade?"
Diaz-Balart then said he fears the Russians might launch a nuke at America. Carlson was dubious, though not because he's a peacenik. Instead, he repeatedly mentioned he does not want Venezuelan war refugees coming to America.
"So they have a small number of Russian advisers there and I'm supposed to think it's a threat because — why?" Carlson asked sarcastically. "No one really explains. Why should I not be worried about 8 million people leaving Venezuela and some of them coming here? Why would we give any of them Temporary Protected Status?" (Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, grants short-term legal immigration rights to refugees of war or natural disasters.)
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Unlike Scott, Diaz-Balart stopped short of calling for an outright invasion. But he was only slightly more careful with his words.
"I commend the Trump administration because they've done a very responsible job trying to pressure the regime and help the Venezuelan people to avoid a catastrophe that one day might force the United States to have to intervene," he said.
Update: Diaz-Balart engaged in some damage-control the next morning. He claimed Carlson understood what the congressman was referring to, even though Fox News itself later reported that Diaz-Balart said Russia "put nuclear missiles in Venezuela."