Senator Marco Rubio, like many conservative Cuban-Americans, sees Venezuela as Cuba redux, and he has taken it upon himself to educate President Trump on the issue. Photograph by Drew Angerer / Getty
The crisis in Venezuela just keeps deepening. The political firestorm is relatively visible. An embattled, unpopular government, led by President Nicolás Maduro, attacks and jails its opponents in a smoky hell of tear gas and bullets. It runs roughshod over the elected representatives in the country’s National Assembly. On July 30th, it held a bogus election, with nothing but regime loyalists on the ballot, for a new body assigned to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution. When its neighbors objected to the government’s undemocratic behavior, Venezuela withdrew from the Organization of American States—the first nation to do so since the organization’s founding, in 1948. Venezuela’s foreign minister, reaching deep, dismissed its O.A.S. critics as “lapdogs of imperialism.”
Slightly less visible is the economic catastrophe. Venezuela is the most indebted country in the world, measured as a share of exports. By some estimates, inflation was at forty per cent last month. Living standards have collapsed on a scale virtually never seen outside wartime. According to Ricardo Hausmann, an economist at Harvard, the median income, measured in dollars exchanged at the black-market rate, fell by eighty-eight per cent in the past five years, from two hundred ninety-five dollars a month to thirty-six dollars a month. The government has stopped releasing poverty figures, but in early 2016 Venezuelan researchers found that, since 2014, the number of households in poverty increased from forty-eight per cent of the total to eighty-two per cent. Hunger and malnutrition are rife. Shortages of food and medicine are chronic. According to an internal health-ministry report obtained by Human Rights Watch, the infant-mortality rate rose by more than sixty per cent over the five years ending in 2016. Meanwhile, the Maduro government denies that there is a humanitarian emergency and refuses international aid.
Enter, of all people, Senator Marco Rubio. Last week, shortly after the sham election, the Florida Republican managed to address a national TV audience in Venezuela via Globovisión, an independent news network. The speech was good. Rubio expressed solidarity with the majority of Venezuelans, who have had their rights trampled. He called out the extravagant corruption of the regime and its friends, claiming to “have seen firsthand,” in Florida, their “vast horse ranches in Wellington … and the mansions in Gables Estates. The private jets at our airports and ten-thousand-dollar shopping sprees at the Mall at Merrick Place. While the people of Venezuela struggle each day to feed their families, have you noticed how many of your leaders have gained weight? While many struggle to access basic medicines, when was the last time a relative of someone in power in Venezuela died because they couldn’t get prescription medication? We see them flying into Miami, enjoying luxuries few Americans themselves enjoy, and then return back with a smile on their face.”
Rubio, like many conservative Cuban-Americans, sees Venezuela as Cuba redux, and he has taken it upon himself to educate President Trump on the issue. In February, at the White House, Rubio introduced the President to Lilian Tintori, the wife of Venezuela’s best-known political prisoner, Leopoldo López. Trump, though usually deaf to complaints about repressive governments, was reportedly responsive. He had already come around on Cuba, from Rubio’s point of view. Indeed, during the campaign, Trump’s conversion on Cuba policy was one of the many small breaks that helped him win the White House. Over the years, he had looked into building a golf course, a hotel, maybe a casino, in Cuba. Arguably, he violated the U.S. trade embargo by sending representatives to investigate business opportunities on the island. On the other hand, he has at times denounced the Castro regime. Then he approved of Barack Obama’s historic opening to Cuba, before he disapproved of it. In the closing days of the 2016 campaign, he attacked Obama’s policy before an audience of veterans of the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. A Miami Herald columnist called it “a desperate, last-minute bid to court Miami’s influential Cuban-American voters.” As such, it worked. The Bay of Pigs Veterans Association endorsed Trump. “I’m humbled by this endorsement from true freedom fighters,” he said. Hard-line Cuban-Americans helped put him over the top in Florida.
In the absence of any regional vision beyond the expedient among Trump’s skeleton transition crew, Rubio seemed to take charge of key parts of the new Administration’s policy toward Latin America. This included, eventually, a rollback of the Obama Administration’s opening to Cuba, which Trump announced in June, in Miami’s Little Havana. Travel to the island by Americans would again be restricted. The twenty-two thousand Cuban homes that have reportedly signed up to host guests through Airbnb will presumably see fewer visitors. There is no reason to think that political freedom in Cuba will increase under the new U.S. policy. But Rubio has clearly revelled in his role. While introducing Trump in Little Havana, he said that he had recently flown to Florida with him on Air Force One, and that the M&M’s onboard were the best on the planet. Trump then gave him the pen with which he signed the executive orders cancelling large parts of Obama’s Cuba “deal.”
It was odd to see all this affection between two men who traded bitter, childish insults during the Republican primary campaign—and the rapprochement didn’t stop there. Rubio serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. When James Comey, the former F.B.I. director, testified before the committee in June, Rubio seemed less interested in Russia’s possible interference in the election than in knowing why Comey had not made it clear that Trump himself was not under investigation. Rubio’s performance was widely panned. He appeared to be, according to the Miami Herald, “acting as Trump’s defense attorney.” That same week, Rubio and Trump dined together at the White House. Rubio, who is privy to the findings that persuaded seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the election, even gives Trump a pass when the President insists that he doesn’t believe it. “He’s entitled to his opinion,” Rubio affably told NBC.
As Venezuela marched toward the abyss, at the end of July, Rubio was ready. Working with Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, he sent the White House a list of ten Venezuelan officials and former officials who, the senators believed, should be targeted with U.S. sanctions as punishment for corruption and human-rights abuses. Within a day, the Treasury Department and the White House had announced sanctions against all ten, plus three other individuals—freezing their assets in the U.S. and prohibiting Americans from doing business with them. Last week, after the Maduro government staged its power grab disguised as an election, the United States slapped sanctions on Maduro himself. This ban placed him in select company, with only three other sitting foreign leaders: North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Maduro acted unimpressed. “Bring on more sanctions, Donald Trump,” he said.
What, if anything, should the United States do about the spiralling Venezuela tragedy? The drive of Rubio and other conservatives is toward a full-court press, the same type of policy that brought us the Cuba trade embargo—and more than half a century now of hostility, producing nothing but hardship. This sort of escalation would actually suit Maduro and his allies, whose claims that a U.S.-led “economic war” is responsible for Venezuela’s collapse would certainly gain credibility. In fact, the United States has enormous leverage in the bilateral relationship. This nation is Venezuela’s largest trading partner, and the main customer for its only significant export, oil. A unilateral oil embargo, reportedly urged by Rubio and under serious consideration, would be devastating to what’s left of the Venezuelan economy. The members of the leadership would presumably not suffer—their personal coffers are full—but ordinary Venezuelans would experience unimaginable new levels of penury.
Well-targeted individual sanctions do have the potential to divide the country’s élite, giving key players in Venezuela pause about which lifeboat they want to be in when Maduro falls. Support for the democratic opposition, including the beleaguered National Assembly, is critical, and it has, frankly, a far better chance in Venezuela of contributing to fundamental change than it does in a mature police state, like Cuba’s. The two countries are quite different, as Rubio’s speech on Globovisión shows. The most important requirement of U.S. policy toward Venezuela, however, is that it be multilateral. Sustained pressure from major Latin-American countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, is indispensable to pushing Venezuela in a more democratic direction, while ill-considered, bullying moves by the United States are the surest way to shatter a pan-American alliance. In a showdown between a small South American country and the Yankee colossus, nobody who counts will be on our side. But does anyone remember the State Department? A worrisome number of its key posts remain unfilled under President Trump, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson skipped the most recent meeting of the O.A.S., where the Venezuelan crisis was the first order of business. And yet the foreign policy of a superpower really should be conducted through the institutions built for that purpose, and not by random, ambitious legislators with an axe to grind and a friendship, however fleeting, with a President who has the best M&M’s.