Photo: Reuters

The Real Weight of Trump’s Words on Venezuela

Behind the public stance of the American president regarding our country, there are political traditions and demographics that go beyond Venezuelans

Despite lasting close to 400 days, U.S. presidential campaigns and their accompanying rhetoric are usually boiled down to relatively few issues that tend to come up again and again. Be it the economy, conflict abroad, or migration policies, candidates tend to emphasize one issue—tested for hundreds of hours on focus groups—and then they repeat it again, and again, and then some more. 

This election season, we’re likely going to hear a lot about Venezuela. The reason: Latino voters.

Electoral arguments are rarely built without having a specific demographic in mind, the larger the better. This year, Latinos are expected for the first time to be the largest ethnic minority in the U.S., with around 32 million Latinos expected to be eligible to vote. That number is compounded by the fact that two-in-three Latino voters live in just five states: California, New York, Texas, Arizona, and Florida. The latter three will be in contention in November 2020.

Eligible Latino voters have for the most part sided with the Democratic Party in recent years, but they’re hardly a predictable voting bloc. The 2016 elections served to debunk several widely held beliefs echoed by most American pollsters, the majority of which suggested that Trump’s hawkish immigration rhetoric would eventually push even conservative-leaning Hispanics to vote against the Republican candidate. Left-leaning Hispanics, moreover, would be mobilized to vote in droves in support of the Democratic front-runner, regardless of their policy priorities. This didn’t happen. 

A surge in Latino voters didn’t materialize, and the overall numbers of Hispanics who voted for the Democratic Party fell by 5% from 2012 to 2016. How many Hispanics voted for Trump is a debated issue, estimates ranging from 28% to 18%, but that’s still a sizable number considering that Trump doesn’t need to win the entire vote to come out with a successful outcome in most states; he just needs to move the needle. 

The team around Trump does understand the damage the U.S. president will do to his re-election chances if he appears weak on Venezuela, and loses voters in South Florida. 

Setting aside the myriad of explanations why Latinos didn’t immediately rush to the Democratic camp—ranging from economic arguments (increased economic competition) to syncretic values (abortion)—there’s little evidence to suggest we might not see a repeat of 2016, and that Republicans can’t attract a sizeable number of Hispanic voters. And one specific sub-section of the voting bloc is likely to be in the sights of Republican pollsters: first and second-generation Cubans residing in South Florida. 

Two-thirds of the U.S.’ 1.2 million eligible Cuban voters live in Florida, representing around 31% of all Latino voters. This particular voting bloc is also heavily skewed to the right, and still holds a grudge towards an Obama administration that sought to normalize relations with the communist government in Havana and failed to pressure Caracas during its transition between Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. Indeed, around 54% of Cubans voted for Trump the first time around, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Among first and second-generation Cuban migrants in Florida, there are several widely held beliefs, including the notion that the communist regime in Havana continues to exist in large part because of Caracas, and the support Venezuela has granted not only to the Castros but to every left-leaning government across the continent. Indeed, at its height, trade with Venezuela accounted for around 20% of Cuba’s GDP, and Venezuela’s economic downfall has also catalyzed the return of bread lines across Cuba. 

Trump’s re-election campaign doesn’t need to elaborate on this argument or list them out in a comprehensive manner. Come November, it just needs to continue to deliver the message it has delivered for much of the past three years: “We are tough on Venezuela.” 

What ‘Tough on Venezuela’ Really Means

This message, one would think, is pretty easy to deliver and there is tangible evidence to suggest that Trump is in fact, in favor of Venezuelan democracy. Ironically—or what others inside the beltway would describe as predictably—Trump doesn’t help himself when speaking out of turn. In late June, we saw the U.S. president saying loud and clear to an Axios reporter that he would be open to meeting with Nicolás Maduro, adding in passing that not only does he “lose very little with [these types of] meetings”, but that Maduro’s principal opposition, Juan Guaidó, might not be up to the job. 

The White House later did damage control, listing out Trump’s record on Venezuela and embellishing some of his rhetoric. The fast-paced response from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is, again, evidence to suggest that the team around Trump does understand the damage the U.S. president will do to his re-election chances if he appears weak on Venezuela, and loses voters in South Florida. 

The message “Tough on Venezuela” also plays well in other corners of the Republican party. Namely, foreign policy hawks that see an encroaching Russia and China on what they likely refer to as America’s “backyard”. The issue of China, in particular, is no longer a bipartisan issue in Washington, and both Republicans and Democrats are increasingly weary of Beijing’s influence in Caracas—even though most Democrats might seem reticent to admit that fact.  

Indeed, Trump’s stance in support of a democratic transition of power in Venezuela, and removing it from Beijing’s sphere of influence is one of the few issues where the Democratic camp cannot fault Trump’s policy, or come up with a credible rebuttal. These types of policy stances with no easy comeback tend to come up, especially during presidential debates. 

The fact is, however, that Trump has shown more restraint  in the past three years than former presidents in committing U.S. soldiers to open-ended wars.

As the campaign heats up, assuming that the ongoing pandemic allows the public and the press to scrutinize candidates, how far will Trump go with “Tough on Venezuela”? According to several former staffers and some sitting Latin American presidents, Trump has repeatedly signaled his willingness for a “military solution”. The fact is, however, that Trump has shown more restraint  in the past three years than former presidents in committing U.S. soldiers to open-ended wars. More importantly, Trump’s core WASP base is likely malleable enough to follow his rhetoric and even repeat it, but might find it a little more difficult to internalize the arguments to support a war in a foreign country. 

The Danger of False Hope

Now, like much of what happens in Washington, the election’s rhetoric or its messaging will not remain inside U.S. borders. Washington politics is, at best, entertainment for much of the Western world. At worst, a form of delusion which forces people to imagine a vested interest in candidates that are running for a foreign office, in a foreign country, in a foreign continent—and there lies one great danger. 

Hope isn’t a strategy, and much less when it’s being delivered by a person who’s morally incompetent. “Tough on Venezuela” will likely play well in Florida where Cuban voters next to Venezuelan, Colombian, and Argentine minorities will find in it a reassuring policy stance. But for those in Venezuela, the same message will carry other meanings that might instill a false hope of foreign intervention that’s dangerous. 

It’s that false hope that someone else will come and remedy our faults which has led in part to Venezuela’s current social and political crisis. And by November’s end, many Venezuelans are likely to be convinced that “someone” is coming, purely because of bloated electoral rhetoric delivered by a candidate who has a vested interest in himself, not in 28 million people living across the Caribbean.