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Latin America Report

Expats Ask: Is Trump's Venezuela Campaign 'Under Control' Or Under Chaos?

trumpdoral.jpeg
Pedro Portal
/
Miami Herald
President Trump listens to a Venezuelan expat last Friday during his visit to Doral.

Last Friday President Trump flew in for a visit to Doral.

“I know it very well,” he said. “’Little Venezuela,’ we call it.”

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It’s nickname is actually “Doralzuela.” Either way, it’s home to the U.S.’s largest Venezuelan community.

Trump was at the U.S. military’s Southern Command, or Southcom, to tout his new drug-interdiction push in the Caribbean – which is designed largely to deprive Venezuela’s authoritarian government of the billions in drug-trafficking cash that’s believed to be propping it up.

That regime is widely blamed for destroying Venezuela’s economy, and Trump tried to reassure Venezuelans his pressure campaign will soon bring it down.

“Venezuela, we have it very well under control,” Trump said during his interagency briefing at Southcom.

Trump’s critics say that’s debatable at best. Lately, his Venezuela policy appears to be less under control and more under chaos.

In May, a group of Venezuelan and U.S. mercenaries were killed or captured during a blunderous attempt to invade Venezuela and kidnap President Nicolás Maduro. They had a signed contract showing they’d been in talks with advisers to opposition leader Juan Guaidó – the man the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

Last month Trump suddenly and inexplicably said he was willing to meet with Maduro. The president later tweeted that he meant he’d only talk to Maduro to discuss the Venezuelan’s "exit from power," but his remarks caused confusion and alarm in Doralzuela.

READ MORE: Venezuela's Dark Laundering Loop: Saab Nabbed, Bagley Pleads Guilty, Maduro Sweats

Then in Doral last week, in an interview with Telemundo, Trump said he's become less confident in Guaidó’s ability to lead the movement against Maduro.

“He seems to be losing a certain power,” Trump said of Guaidó. “We want somebody who has the support of the people.”

Days earlier Maduro had indeed further weakened that movement by seizing control of opposition parties, packing Venezuela’s new federal election council with allies and illegally calling for parliamentary elections in December. In fact, if Guaidó seems weaker, Maduro seems stronger now than when Trump first vowed to help overthrow him 18 months ago.

The only exit for Venezuela now is one of force - an armed insurgency inside the country. -Esteban Gerbasi

As a result, a lot Venezuelans in South Florida are calling for a new approach. For many like Esteban Gerbasi, that means a more radical approach.

“The only exit for Venezuela now is one of force,” says Gerbasi, a political consultant who lives in Pinecrest after fleeing Venezuela a decade ago because of what he calls violent regime harassment due to his opposition work. He says that included an armed attack by regime thugs at his home in Caracas.

Gerbasi says he was once one of Guaidó’s political party bosses – and while he admires Guaidó’s courage, he fears the 36-year-old has proven to be too inexperienced for the outsize role he was thrust into last year. Gerbasi also insists Trump’s strategy of economic sanctions against the regime is not enough. His conclusion:

“The U.S. and its international allies must fund an armed insurgency inside Venezuela,” Gerbasi says. Meaning: a bona fide guerrilla force. 

If you want to change the Venezuelan government you have to stop promising quick and magical solutions that never work. -Francisco Poleo

It’s unlikely the U.S. military will ever invade Venezuela, so Gerbasi feels this is the only way to bring the regime to the negotiating table – much the way U.S.-supported contra rebels helped force Nicaragua’s Marxist regime 30 years ago.

“I’m hardly the only Venezuelan urging the U.S. to consider this,” Gerbasi argues.

Guaidó says he has not asked the U.S. to consider building a guerilla force inside Venezuela. But two opposition leaders close to Guaidó (who asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak for him) told WLRN the idea of an armed insurgency has regularly been discussed. 

Still, other Venezuelan expats call this a fantasy – one that gets in the way of more realistic solutions to their native country’s political and humanitarian crisis.

“Everything fails because too many in the opposition want everything to happen right now – the fast-track option,” says Francisco Poleo, a Venezuelan exile journalist in Miami.

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Poleo too wants Venezuelan regime change. His father is also a journalist in exile in Miami – and is still harassed by the regime with bogus Interpol notices claiming he’s wanted for crimes back in Venezuela.

Even so, Poleo insists Trump, Guaidó and their international allies have to pursue the longer, harder work of negotiating paths like a new presidential election in Venezuela – which polls show Maduro would certainly lose.

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Evan Vucci
/
AP

“I understand the impatience,” says Poleo. “I mean, I’m impatient too, you know? But if you want to change a government you can’t promise things like a military operation. That quick and magical solution never works.”

But Poleo and others point out the Venezuelan military’s loyalty to Maduro is the reason he stays in power – and so those armed forces do have to be a focus of any talks about political change.

“They’re the pivotal player in all this,” says Michael Penfold, a political economy professor at the Advanced Management Studies Institute (IESA) in Caracas. “Trump and the opposition should realize that you have to do more than just push them – you also need to pull. That’s key.”

That means the Trump Administration, Guaidó’s camp and the international community – the almost 60 countries that also recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s constitutional head of state – doing the diplomatic leg work to incentivize a military break with Maduro, so a recently proposed democratic transition plan can work.

“I don’t think the military will accept any political change that they perceive leaves them at risk to any judicial process,” says Penfold. “You have to provide an alternative for them that is attractive.”

That might be more difficult now that the U.S. has indicted Venezuela’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino, on drug-conspiracy charges.

Still, actions like that have been popular with Venezuelan expats. Trump hopes that helps him secure more Latino votes here in Florida – which is why last Friday’s visit is unlikely to be his last to “Little Venezuela” between now and November.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.