President Trump, speaking Monday in vote-rich south Florida, called on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s supporters to abandon him or face ruin, and denounced what he termed socialism at home and abroad.
Aides had billed Trump’s speech as a show of support for Venezuela’s opposition leader and self-declared interim president, Juan Guaido, as he seeks to oust Maduro. But the event had all the trappings of a political rally.
Trump linked the struggle to his opposition to communist-ruled Cuba, one of Maduro’s key allies and a source of concern for a vocal emigre minority in Miami. He said the move toward democracy was irreversible in both countries.
“There will be no going back,” Trump said at Florida International University in Miami, where a cheering crowd waved U.S. and Venezuelan flags and chanted “USA!”
Three weeks after the Trump administration recognized Guaido as the legitimate president, Maduro still controls Venezuela’s military and security forces and has vowed to not step down. Trump urged the commanders to switch sides and join the opposition.
“You will find no safe harbor, no easy exit and no way out,” Trump said. “You will lose everything.”
The Trump administration has stepped up sanctions on Maduro and dozens of his associates, and put a hold on much of the country’s oil exports in an effort to pressure Maduro to step down.
Venezuela sits on the world’s largest proven oil reserves but production is collapsing under the weight of the country’s many crises.
With Venezuela facing dire shortages of basic goods, the Trump administration has sent food, medicine and other relief items, but Maduro’s forces have blocked them at the border the country shares with Colombia.
Maduro has argued that his enemies exaggerate the shortages and that Venezuela will not become a land of “beggars.”
Guaido had formally asked for the aid and on Monday declared it would be allowed to enter. He did not explain how, since Maduro’s forces control all territory and border crossings.
“Neither fear nor persecution will block the aid,” Guaido told a news conference in Caracas, the capital.
U.S. officials have said they hope putting the humanitarian aid on the border will prompt Maduro’s troops to abandon him and allow the supplies to reach people who need it.
Trump’s “not-so-subtle message to the troops and mid-ranks is ‘get on the right side of history with the Guaido government and your own suffering families,’” said John Feeley, former U.S. ambassador to Panama, who has been critical of both Trump and Maduro.
“It is a gambit without a guarantee, but a creative one,” Feeley said.
Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, told reporters last week that many military officers were secretly negotiating ways to support Guaido or escape the country.
“The military and other senior figures among Maduro’s supporters are not going to tell the press that they are negotiating with the opposition,” Bolton said. “But many of them, the majority, maybe almost all of them, have been doing just that for the last three weeks.”
Driving a wedge between troops and their commanders may be necessary for an opposition takeover to succeed. But other than a handful of officials who have switched loyalty, there is little public evidence of cracks.
Maduro fired back shortly after Trump finished his speech.
“Donald Trump wants to prohibit political diversity and impose white supremacist thinking … a colonial model,” Maduro said at a ceremony in his Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. “Trump and the gringos … want to make us their slaves.”
Later, Maduro announced he would accept 300 tons of aid from Russia on Wednesday.
Trump was keen to blame Venezuela’s problems on socialism, pinpointing a target not just for U.S. policy in Latin America but for his 2020 presidential campaign. Trump has portrayed some Democrats as socialists.
Trump and his advisors describe the upheaval in Venezuela as a forerunner to change in Cuba and Nicaragua. Bolton last year labeled the three leftist-run countries the “troika of tyranny.”
“A new day is coming in Latin America. Across the hemisphere, socialism is dying,” Trump said. “The twilight hour of socialism has arrived. The days of socialism and communism are numbered, not just in Venezuela but Nicaragua and Cuba too.”
Most regional experts blame Venezuela’s disastrous decline less on socialist policies than on decades of brazen corruption and mismanagement, especially under Maduro and his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
The country now suffers the world’s highest inflation, soaring homicide rates and shortages of food, medicine and other crucial goods.
Trump’s comments were likely to appeal to conservative Latinos in south Florida, including Cuban and Nicaraguan refugees and tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have emigrated in recent years. Trump won Florida in 2016 and it remains pivotal to his hopes for reelection.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has advocated U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, was among those at the speech. He visited Colombia’s border with Venezuela on Sunday to dramatize the stalled shipments of U.S. food and medicine.
Trump, who spent the three-day Presidents Day weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, flew back to Washington after the speech.
Haberkorn reported from Miami and Wilkinson from Washington. Special correspondent Mery Mogollon in Caracas contributed to this report.
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