In a move that foreign-policy experts say is both unprecedented and dangerous, Florida's U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart this past weekend showed up in Cúcuta, Colombia, a town on the Venezuelan border, to effectively threaten war against Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro.
"There is no precedent for two legislators to make a one-party codel to a contested border region," Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and expert on Latin American politics, tells New Times. "The bizarre nature of the trip just underscores the lack of leadership within the executive [branch] and state in particular on this issue and that Venezuela has become an electoral issue for Trump, with Senator Rubio clearly benefiting from this symbiotic relationship...Frankly, it's a ridiculous and dangerous stunt."
President Donald Trump, who spoke about Venezuela at Florida International University last Friday, has bizarrely deputized Rubio to act as what some are calling an informal "under-secretary of state" for Latin America. In reality, this means Rubio is largely working with White House officials to set U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere.
Though that practice is not entirely out of the ordinary, Rubio took his new role a step further by heading to Colombia with Diaz-Balart to talk tough on the border. Some critics and historians are now assailing the move as an authoritarian and cynical ploy by Rubio to rally his right-wing base in America. That grandstanding, however, could lead to violence or outright war.
Earlier this month, American forces tried to ship $20 million in so-called aid packages across the Colombia-Venezuela border. The Americans did so despite protests from the United Nations and International Committee for the Red Cross, both of which called the move a Trojan horse to effect regime change in the country. (Rubio has nonsensically accused the UN of "defending" Maduro.) Other critics have assailed the so-called aid move as a thinly veiled pretext to build up military personnel on the Venezuelan border.
After Maduro blocked those efforts by closing off a (nonfunctioning) bridge, Rubio arrived in Cúcuta Sunday alongside a shiny new American military plane. Rubio and other White House officials say the U.S. will again try to move so-called aid across the border February 23 — and both Rubio and Diaz-Balart threatened that members of the Maduro regime would "spend the rest of their lives hiding from justice" if they block the American military from entering the country this weekend.
Former Miami state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), was along for the ride. He wore a Florida State University hat:
At the border with @MarioDB & @AmbCTrujillo. Those containers behind us were put there by a terrorist, criminal regime. It isn't going to work. Food and medicine will reach the people of #Venezuela. pic.twitter.com/mbw6QIIIAe— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 17, 2019
New Times spoke with multiple history professors — some who did not want to be quoted — who all agreed that it is exceedingly rare in American history to find another situation in which members of Congress have flown to a foreign country and basically threatened war on behalf of the White House.
The incident seems to represent a 180-degree shift in the typical responsibilities of the legislative branch: Usually, senators and congresspeople provide foreign-policy oversight. If necessary, they sign off on the president's requests for war or military intervention.
Instead, Rubio and Diaz-Balart are effectively acting as envoys from the White House.
Am I the only one worried that Senator Marco Rubio seems to have gone from being the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere to now going to the Colombia-Venezuela border and looking like General Patton? This is unprecedented for a US Senator.— Christopher Sabatini (@ChrisSabatini) February 18, 2019
Yes. Exactly. But the problem is Rubio isn’t a head of state or even in the executive branch so he probably wouldn’t have been invited. So the answer I guess is take matters into your own hands.— Christopher Sabatini (@ChrisSabatini) February 18, 2019
Greg Grandin, a professor of Latin American history at New York University who has written multiple books about American regime-change efforts, cannot recall a time when a senator had such control over America's foreign policy. He says some members of Congress have definitely helped influence the White House's moves abroad — he references ex-Washington Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a conservative Democrat who had a large amount of influence over the executive branch during the Vietnam War.
"But I can't think of anything such as these kinds of stunts," Grandin says of Rubio's surprise trip to Colombia over the weekend. "This certainly seems to be wag-the-dog-level theatrics."
Rubio does sit on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, two positions he might use to justify the trip. Diaz-Balart, likewise, sits on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, which oversees aspects of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. But, notably, other members of those committees don't typically fly around abroad conducting their own foreign policy to this extent.
Some historians cite the case of former Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran who served in Congress from 1959 until his death in 2012. Inouye, the first Japanese-American to serve in the Senate, was extremely proactive when it came to American foreign policy in Asia. He often acted as a de facto diplomat. And, certainly, lawmakers regularly travel to visit troops or military bases in American war zones.
Perhaps the most similar incident came in 2009, when a trio of South Florida lawmakers — Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart — flew to Honduras to express support for an outright coup occurring in that nation. At that time, however, the lawmakers appeared to be working independently of the Obama Administration and were not threatening U.S. military actions.
But numerous Latin American historians and policy analysts have also weighed in this week and called various aspects of the Trump-Rubio group's moves potentially catastrophic. Michael J. Bustamante, a history professor at Florida International University, said online that Rubio's visit to the border was little more than "stagecraft" that likely undermined the group's image inside Venezuela.
Sabatini compared the visit to the utterly absurd time Vice President Mike Pence showed up at the Korean "demilitarized zone" to stare angrily at North Korean officials and show the "resolve in [his] face.” In that case, Pence was at least a White House official.
Stagecraft. A la the useless Pence “staredown” at the DMZ.— Michael J Bustamante (@MJ_Busta) February 18, 2019
The Senator’s desire for media protagonism betrays hope for electoral payoff and will only energize those who see Venezuelan opposition as beholden to US support. https://t.co/9SqXWKhiLs
Greg Weeks, an associate dean at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and an expert on Latin American politics, wrote online that Rubio's visit was "symbolically rich: a U.S. Senator wearing a polo shirt and Ray-Bans telling the military of another country what to do while standing at its border."
symbolically rich: a U.S. senator wearing a polo shirt and Ray-Bans telling the military of another country what to do while standing at its border. https://t.co/QdTV3mCMxX— Greg Weeks (@GregWeeksCLT) February 18, 2019
Critics of Rubio's so-called human-rights excursion point out that the senator's foreign-policy record is wildly inconsistent. While he's campaigning against violence and authoritarianism in Venezuela, he remains a steadfast supporter of Saudi Arabia's brutal war on Yemen, in which the United States is heavily involved.
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In 2018, the Saudis used a U.S.-made bomb to blow up a school bus filled with 40 children. Rubio still supports that war. He's also repeatedly expressed his support for Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro, who has said he wants to bring back Brazil's military dictatorship and torture his own civilians. And Rubio has defended the record of Trump adviser Elliott Abrams, a former Reagan administration official who repeatedly backed brutal death squads in Latin America and covered up the slaughter of children by U.S.-backed forces in El Salvador, Guatemala, and other parts of Central America.
Instead, Rubio, Diaz-Balart, and Trump seem to be going after Maduro — a demonstrably corrupt and violent leader — to score political points with right-wingers at home. They even compare the left-wing regime to opponents such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Critics warn that, without significant planning or further negotiations among international groups, the situation could worsen. A war would be a guaranteed bloodbath, and America's current oil sanctions on Venezuela appear to be pushing the country further into poverty. (International groups have also criticized the Americans for spurning peaceful and democratic solutions to the crisis.) Rubio's new responsibilities illustrate that Trump has thinned America's diplomatic corps to what seems to be a dangerously small number of people.
Just to emphasize this point, Trump himself gave a speech in Miami on human rights and freedom in Venezuela — while a member of the far-right, neofascist Proud Boys cheered him on in the audience.