WASHINGTON – Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro might not be listening Friday when Vice President Mike Pence gives a microphone to exiled Venezuelans living in South Florida.
But Pence’s trip to Miami, to showcase the administration’s hard-line efforts to oust Maduro, is likely to resonate with an all-important bloc of Latino voters in the nation’s largest swing state.
And that could help another embattled president: Donald Trump.
No Republican presidential candidate has won the White House in nearly a century without carrying Florida – a state also known for its razor-thin election margins.
“It’s very hard to see a scenario where the president gets re-elected without winning Florida,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida.
Trump’s tough stance on Maduro is very popular in Florida among that state’s Cuban and Venezuelan populations, which account for more than 1.5 million of the state’s 21 million residents. It also resonates with the Colombian community, which is growing in political importance in Florida’s most populous county: Miami-Dade.
“Although I don’t think this is the primary motivation for the (Trump administration’s) policy, it is definitely an advantage,” said Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University and an expert on Florida and Cuban-American politics.
In 2016, Trump lost Miami-Dade County by a bigger margin than did GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, who lives in West Miami. Nearly all of the approximately 150,000 voters who split their ticket between Rubio and Hillary Clinton were Latinos, according to Moreno.
“And that could easily move to either the Republican column or easily stay in the Democratic column” in 2020, he said.
Trump and his top advisers have clearly stated they are considering “all options” to force Maduro out and support opposition leader Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, who has declared himself interim president.
Venezuelans are suffering from a spiraling economic and humanitarian crisis. The dire conditions have prompted at least 3 million Venezuelans to flee their homeland, creating a refugee crisis in the region.
Cuban-Americans are very attuned to the Venezuelan crisis because they see it as a replay in many ways of what they went through with Fidel Castro – a repressive ruler implementing a ruinous economic policy. The close diplomatic relationship between Cuba and Venezuela adds to their ire.
“If you’re hitting Cuba hard, you’re also hurting Venezuela and vice versa,” said Frank O. Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Florida International University.
Trump is not going to win the Hispanic vote in Florida, Schale said. But he can grow his share of the vote by focusing on issues important to segments of the population.
“For Republicans, it’s more about finding places where they can impact the margins,” he said.
Cuba has been a long and fervent supporter of Venezuela’s socialist leaders, starting with Hugo Chavez’ ascension to power in 1999 and extending through Maduro’s presidency. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro was extremely close to Chavez; the Venezuelan revolutionary saw Castro as a father figure and Castro helped groom Maduro to succeed Chavez when the latter became ill with cancer.
Cuba’s current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has continued the close ties, even if he and Maduro do not share the same deep friendship.
Díaz-Canel flew to Caracas to celebrate Maduro’s second inauguration in January, ignoring the allegations of fraud and intimidation that have clouded the Venezuelan leader’s claim to power. After Trump’s recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, Díaz-Canel accused the U.S. of trying to mount a “coup d’etat” and promised to support Maduro amid the escalating power struggle.
As they press for Maduro’s ouster, top Trump administration officials and conservatives in Congress have also played up the connection between the socialist governments.
“No regime has done more to sustain the nightmarish condition of the Venezuelan people than the regime in Havana,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech at the United Nations last weekend.
“For years, Cuban security and intelligence thugs, invited into Venezuela by Maduro himself and those around him, have sustained this illegitimate rule,” he said. “They have trained Maduro’s security and intelligence henchmen in Cuba’s own worst practices … Let’s be crystal clear: the foreign power meddling in Venezuela today is Cuba.”
When Maduro’s forces temporarily detained Guaido earlier this year, Rubio – a Cuban-American who has been pressing Trump for months to stand up to the Maduro regime and what he considers its litany of human rights abuses – made a similar reference to allegations that Cuba has trained and infiltrated Venezuela’s security forces.
Maduro’s intelligence forces are “controlled & directed by experienced oppressors sent by #Cuba & these kinds of tactics are textbook methods used by Cuban regime,” tweeted Rubio, who is expected to participate in Pence’s Miami event Friday.
“These are all linked and so for the administration to act tough and talk tough (on Venezuela) is popular in South Florida,” said Mora, who served as deputy assistant defense secretary for the Western Hemisphere during the Obama administration. “And South Florida is one of the few areas or regions of the country in which foreign policy is a domestic political factor in how people vote.”
So it’s no wonder Pence will be in Miami on Friday, meeting with members of the Venezuelan exile community at Iglesia Doral Jesus Worship Center, along with Carlos Vecchio the Venezuelan diplomat representing Guaido in the U.S.
While the administration’s actions against Maduro’s government have stepped up since Maduro was sworn in for a second term in an election marred by allegation of fraud, Pence has long been active on the issue.
Venezuela was a top focus of Pence’s 2017 and 2018 trips to South and Central America. He met with displaced Venezuelans in Colombia and Brazil, encouraged neighboring countries to put pressure on Maduro’s government, and accused the “dictator” of violently suppressing those who questioned his regime.
Maduro responded by calling Pence a “poisonous viper” who makes him stronger when he inserts himself into Venezuelan affairs.
If that’s true, both Maduro and Trump will benefit from Friday’s event in Florida.
Contributing: Ledyard King and Alan Gomez.
More: Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro says any US invasion would be worse than ‘Vietnam’
More: Oil sanctions. Deadly violence. Dire economy. How the Venezuelan crisis could affect US
More: John Bolton’s notes on ‘5,000 troops to Colombia’ spark speculation about military intervention in Venezuela