Florida's Worst Politicians Are Crafting Trump's Plan for Venezuelan Regime Change

Donald Trump at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana on June 16, 2017.
Donald Trump at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana on June 16, 2017. Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
Where does Donald Trump get his ideas for the crackdown on Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro?

From this group of unfeeling toad-people hell-bent on nothing except abusing the political process to accumulate power, money, and prestige: Iran-Contra veteran and war hawk John Bolton, death-squad backer Elliott Abrams, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and a massive coven of Florida's top lawmakers including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former Miami State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, who is now the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS).

Like Trump, many of those mentioned above have long, demonstrable histories of attempting to strip protections from the poor and needy or have made outright statements of hatred against LGBTQ people, immigrants, or black people. Bolton in 2003 lied to convince Americans to invade Iraq, which cost taxpayers $5.6 trillion and led to the deaths of at least 500,000 Iraqi civilians. Abrams can quite feasibly be called a war criminal for his role in a Guatemalan genocide that killed thousands of native people.

If this same group banded together to propose any sort of domestic policy — eliminating health-care rights, granting massive tax cuts for the rich, etc. — their ideas would rightfully be met with skepticism and scorn.

And yet, there has been nary a whiff of criticism in South Florida while these people now hatch plans to launch a full-on war in Latin America. With Pence coming to Miami today to meet with Venezuelan exiles in Doral and speak alongside Rubio, Scott, Diaz-Balart, and others, it's worth asking why Democrats, media, and South Florida residents are suddenly giving this same group the benefit of the doubt.

None of this says Maduro deserves to remain in power. He doesn't. His forces have violently cracked down on dissenters and have in some cases tortured or killed protesters. He regularly intimidates and detains journalists critical of his regime. (Maduro's government even temporarily detained Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss in 2016.) He has utterly mismanaged the country and is now starving his own citizens. As New Times reported in 2017, wealthy Venezuelan government officials have laundered money in the Miami and Houston areas while poor Venezuelans have literally starved. There is credible evidence Maduro's allies have raided Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), rather than using that money to help citizens. And, in response to growing opposition wins at the ballot box, Maduro's Supreme Court in 2017 stripped powers from the democratically elected National Assembly. Maduro then tried to create a new, parallel governing body and re-write the Venezuelan constitution.

Recently, the country's poorest neighborhoods have abandoned Maduro: The poor took to the streets in 2002 when the country's opposition party tried to suspend the constitution and intimidate Chavistas. In 2019, the needy are now leading marches against Maduro.

But it is absolute hogwash to pretend the team of Rubio, Scott, Trump, Bolton, and Abrams cares about Venezuela's poor, human rights, or even democracy. Instead, this is transparently an attempt to score political points in America by painting themselves as freedom-fighters overseas. And the con is sadly working so far, even as the European Union and other outside groups are taking steps to try and find a peaceful way to remove Maduro from power.

These men are, pure and simple, hypocrites. Scott, for example, has spent his career making it harder for Floridians to vote, demonizing the poor, and undermining basic democratic principles. Last year, he fabricated claims that his senatorial election was being "stolen" through fraud. He's now urging Trump to declare a state of emergency to build his border wall. Scott is talking tough about dictatorship abroad while supporting Trump's own semidictatorial tendencies at home. And, most tellingly, the Tampa Bay Times revealed last August that the then-governor, while talking tough about Maduro and telling business to disinvest from Venezuela, was investing in companies that do substantial business with Maduro's government.

Rubio, too, seems selective in his support for human rights. He's currently crusading to abridge the First Amendment by making it harder for Americans to criticize Israel's violation of the Palestinian people's rights. The American Civil Liberties Union just this week publicly scolded Rubio for his dangerously poor interpretation of America's free-speech laws. The senator has also long supported America's involvement in the brutal Saudi attack on Yemen, a barbaric assault on a poor nation that has become what the nonprofit Oxfam calls "the world's largest humanitarian emergency." Last year, the Saudis used an American-made bomb to blow up a school bus filled with 40 children. And, mere days ago, Rubio praised newly elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — who wants to bring back Brazil's military dictatorship and believes in torturing civilians. Rubio's reputation tanked after Trump humiliated him during the 2016 presidential election — so it's unsurprising he's now rehabilitating his image by becoming a hawk.

It's also worth noting that the last Latin-America policy that Rubio and Diaz-Balart helped craft for Trump — their new round of sanctions on Cuba — has failed. Local entrepreneurs seem to be suffering more rather than less.

(Even Trujillo, Trump's ambassador to the OAS, has a record of attempted petty tyranny: He once supported a plan to give then-Governor Scott the power to use the military to crack down on undocumented immigrants.)

Even more telling than the involvement of Florida's political hacks is the inclusion of Bolton and Abrams, two veterans of America's 1980s dirty wars in Latin America and the Iran-Contra scandal. Bolton has never met a United States war he didn't like — he has written that he believes in pushing "aggressive advocacy of U.S. interests" and that the United Nations is a largely weak and ineffectual force that the American government should ignore. Bolton pushed the U.S. to invade Iraq during the first Gulf War, then returned in 2003 and sold the nation on obvious lies in order to invade Iraq under George W. Bush. Despite the war being a humanitarian and financial disaster, Bolton says he has "no regrets" about his role in it. Since then, he's continued to push the Trump administration to potentially attack North Korea and/or Iran.

But there may be no more obvious war criminal in American history than Abrams, who personally masterminded the funding of multiple right-wing death squads across Latin America that, in some cases, committed genocide. There was the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, where 500 civilians were reportedly slaughtered, including children whose throats were slit. Abrams later called his El Salvador campaign a "fabulous achievement."

There was his support for the Guatemalan army, which wiped out 662 rural villages by decapitating and literally crucifying people — as two-time George Polk Award-winning reporter Allan Nairn recounted this week to reporter Amy Goodman. After Abrams was presented with evidence the Guatemalan army raped and murdered a woman and then ripped out her baby's fingernails before killing the infant, Abrams dismissed the deaths as a "traffic accident." A Guatemalan court in 2013 officially ruled the army's U.S.-backed actions in the 1980s were acts of genocide.

Abrams was also convicted of lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal. President George H.W. Bush then pardoned him.

It's virtually impossible to name a country Abrams has helped. Rather, he is the prime reason Central American migrants are now fleeing broken governments in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua for the United States. It is simply appalling that Abrams is now being given a platform to orchestrate military actions in yet another Latin American country after abetting genocide and sparking a continent-wide refugee crisis. Abrams doesn't fight for "freedom." He's simply a thug.

These examples of brutality speak to a larger ideology uniting this team of Republican hawks — that it's fine to murder dissidents or crack down on protesters or cause full-on, genocidal, humanitarian catastrophes so long as your regime is friendly to the United States' business and investment interests. For more than a century, this has been the driving force behind America's foreign policy in Latin America. Consider our war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas or our support for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, a murderous tyrant who disemboweled dissidents before chucking them into the sea from helicopters. More recently, the Trump administration in December 2017 “certified” the election of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, despite the fact that his election is widely considered to have been a sham.

The United States only removes Latin American leaders who make life inconvenient for our business leaders. Venezuela's Chávez and Maduro certainly qualify.

Bolton, at least, has been somewhat transparent about the way Venezuela's massive oil reserves are, ahem, impacting the United States' thinking. While appearing on the Fox Business Network this week, he stated it would "make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela." The U.S. government's latest round of oil sanctions on Venezuela notably exempt American companies Chevron and Halliburton, which continue doing business in the Latin American nation. Venezuela's massive oil reserves were nationalized in the 1970s — long before Chávez took power. Opening up Venezuelan fields to American companies would reverse nearly a half-century of energy policy.

The oil sanctions are more than just empty threats. Former United Nations Venezuelan expert Alfred de Zayas told the Independent this week that America's oil sanctions are certain to deepen Venezuela's economic crisis, are "illegal," and could amount to "crimes against humanity." Just yesterday, a U.N. human rights expert, Idriss Jazairy, also warned the U.S. government. "Sanctions which can lead to starvation and medical shortages are not the answer to the crisis in Venezuela,” Jazairy wrote in a media release that, naturally, did not get same media attention as the Trump administration's latest drumbeats. Obviously, the United States will only lift the sanctions if it gets the leader it wants.

Oil is not the only factor at play here. At the moment, foreign meddling also seems to poll well. As Politico Florida recounted Wednesday, South Florida's Venezuelan exile community seemingly favors U.S. intervention abroad. And Republican actions against Maduro could possibly win the state for Trump in 2020. South Florida Democrats seem to be trying to get in on this too. Miami Rep. Donna Shalala recently told CBS News there are "always going to be issues on which" her party sides with Donald Trump — including meddling in the election of a foreign country. Other Florida Democrats have mostly been silent or downright cheerful about the possibility of another war overseas.

But something polling well doesn't inherently make it right — the vast majority of Americans supported invading Iraq in 2003, after all.

There are viable options on the table that don't include military action: Last week, a group of respected Latin-American scholars published an open letter to the United States scolding the State Department for refusing to push for a negotiated settlement to end the crisis. Instead, the academics say that America is hell-bent on fomenting a war — and that the U.S.'s recognition of Guaidó's "presidency" actually violated the OAS charter.

Moreover, the European Union this morning announced that it was creating a "contact group" between the E.U. and Latin America in order to push for a democratic — and peaceful — solution to the crisis that includes free elections. Tellingly, Brazil's foreign minister under the U.S.-allied Bolsonaro, Ernesto Araújo, has already slimed the E.U. for trying to "give survival to the dictatorship."

Although even Shalala has labeled Trump's moves as good for "the future of Latin American democracy," there are signs Guaidó's own party may not be the democratic "freedom fighters" they seem. While their stated platform is to the left of the U.S. Republican Party (and perhaps some Democrats), Guaidó's Voluntad Popular party has also engaged in political violence, including attacks on Chavista supporters as well as — allegedly — assassination attempts on Maduro. While Guaidó is a fresh face in Venezuelan politics, his mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, was active during the 2002 coup and famously belonged to a political party with a platform clearly to the right of the allegedly "socialist" Guaidó

While Lopez has long denied any involvement in the coup, a 2015 investigation from Foreign Policy magazine found troves of evidence that members of Lopez's inner circle were heavily involved in trying to topple the Chávez government. Many of Lopez's closest allies signed the infamous "Carmona Decree," which attempted to dissolve the constitution, National Assembly, and Supreme Court. (The Guardian, New York Times, and other major news outlets later confirmed that Abrams and the CIA were involved in the coup attempt.) Chávez was removed from office for about 48 hours before he regained power.

Guaidó also earned criticism online last month after praising Brazil's all-but-fascist Bolsonaro as a man committed to "democracy" and "human rights." Guaidó's American support appears to have been in the works for a while. In 2017, then-CIA chief Mike Pompeo hinted the Trump administration was possibly working to topple Maduro. Guaidó's team then flew to the United States to meet top officials before Trump ultimately "recognized" Guadó as the leader of Venezuela.

The question of Maduro's own democratic "legitimacy" is also not as settled as American diplomats want it to seem. Venezuela's opposition party intentionally sat out the 2018 election, virtually guaranteeing Maduro a victory. Prior to this year, that nation's electoral system was assumed to be fairly trustworthy: The nonprofit Carter Center, President Jimmy Carter's human-rights organization, has been monitoring Venezuelan elections since 1998 and did not generally criticize the country until Maduro began consolidating power around 2017. The Carter Center even certified Maduro's 2012 election as legitimate.

So far, it appears threats and sanctions are not working for the United States: Many outside analysts worry the decision to recognize Guaidó has forced Maduro to hold even tighter to power and lean even more heavily on allies including Russia and China for financial support. And the Venezuelan army has so far stated it will remain loyal to Maduro. Of course, Bolton has repeatedly said he's happy to invade the country if Maduro refuses to budge — whether intentionally or not, Bolton showed up to a recent press conference with "5,000 troops to Colombia" written on a notepad. Asked about the phrase, Bolton refused to rule out sending the military to the Venezuela-Colombia border. Maduro, meanwhile, seems to be using threats from the United States to make himself sound tough on state TV.

Maduro’s threats are, of course, a joke, since there's no dispute that he is a corrupt leader who has run his nation into the ground. But there is also no dispute that many of the architects of this so-called fight for Venezuelan "freedom" have a clear track record of destroying helpless nations and plundering countries when they're vulnerable. Polling shows that Americans don't trust this president to run his own country — so it's unconscionable that we'd let him set policy in another, especially when it has all the markings of history repeating itself.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.