Venezuela puts spotlight on Rubio

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Tensions swirl around Iran as administration to brief Congress Ending the Cyprus arms embargo will increase tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean MORE (R-Fla.) is at the center of the U.S. fight with the Maduro regime in Venezuela, putting a spotlight on his foreign policy views in Latin America and influence in the Trump administration.

Rubio, who tangled with President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE during the 2016 primary, is now working closely with the administration as it draws a hard line against Nicolás Maduro while the country’s disputed leader prevents outside medicine and food from reaching his people.

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The Florida senator stood on stage with Trump at a speech regarding Venezuela at Florida International University on Monday, where Trump closely followed a script written and perfected by Rubio’s South Florida allies.

The speech followed a highly publicized trip Rubio took with Trump officials to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, where they warned soldiers loyal to Maduro to allow U.S. aid into the country.

“It is one thing to hear the stories, but it is another to see firsthand the suffering of those fleeing from the cruelty of Maduro’s narco-terrorist tyranny,” Rubio told The Hill in an email. “Now is the time for the Venezuelan military to stand with their countrymen and against an illegitimate usurper who is starving his people.”

Rubio, the second-highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stands to gain politically from being the face of a mostly winning issue for Trump.

“[Rubio] realized if he just focuses on his issues and gives the president sound advice, he can very much increase his portfolio and his influence,” said Ryan C. Berg, a Latin America research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Rubio has not called for military action against Venezuela, and so, in some ways, Trump has gone further than Rubio’s position on Maduro by warning that military action against Venezuela remains “on the table.”

But there is a direct link between Trump’s policy and Rubio’s. Trump’s foreign policy team includes people in key positions who once advised Rubio on policy toward the Western Hemisphere, including U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States Carlos Trujillo and the Western Hemisphere head at the National Security Council, Mauricio Claver-Carone.

Trujillo accompanied Rubio on the weekend trip to Cúcuta, a Colombian town across the Táchira River from Ureña in Venezuela, along with Rep. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartHere are the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats on the Equality Act House approves anti-LGBT discrimination Equality Act Thirty-four GOP members buck Trump on disaster bill MORE (R-Fla.) and USAID Administrator Mark GreenMark GreenThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP rep introducing bill offering alternative Medicaid program The Hill's Morning Report - Barr stiff-arms House following Senate grilling MORE. They intended to deliver 20,000 boxes of food, which was turned away by the Venezuelan blockade.

Rubio warned the Venezuelan military that keeping aid out of the country would amount to a “crime against humanity.”

On Monday, Trump referred to Rubio’s trip in his speech, declaring that Maduro “would rather see his people starve than give them aid.”

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Trump also touted the United States as the first nation to recognize the interim presidency of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly.

Guaidó last month declared himself president, alleging the absence of a president and vice president, who were sworn in following a reelection deemed illegitimate by most outside observers. The Organization of American States, the United States, the European Union and most Latin American countries all considered Maduro’s reelection illegitimate.

The move has strong bipartisan support within the U.S. Only a few members of Congress, including Reps. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaDem rep: You can't be a Democrat if you don't support abortion, LGBTQ rights House passes drug pricing bills amid ObamaCare row John Cusack calls for Trump's impeachment in Capitol Hill visit MORE (D-Calif.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarJohn Oliver torches Meghan McCain over Seth Meyers dust-up 'SNL' mocks Jeanine Pirro's support of Trump: 'He is the Michael Jordan of presidents' Omar introduces bill sanctioning Brunei over anti-homosexuality law MORE (D-Minn.), have spoken out against recognizing Guaidó.

Most Democrats have warned against the threat of military action, while aggressively denouncing Maduro.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHoyer: Dems will move quickly on anti-Israel boycott bill Trump faces criticism for hosting Hungary's leader This week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report MORE (D-N.Y.) was among the first to censure Maduro’s reelection.

Despite his past clashes and policy differences with Trump, in some ways, Rubio was naturally positioned for influence in U.S. policy on Venezuela.

“South Florida politics have always been an important factor in determining U.S. policy toward Cuba and that’s now true of Venezuela and to a much lesser extent Nicaragua,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

But attracting Trump’s attention to Venezuela is a political coup for Rubio and other Florida Republicans, who barely eked out gubernatorial and Senate wins against Democrats in 2018.

Venezuelan-Americans, although much smaller in number than Cuban-Americans or Puerto Ricans living in Florida, could help shift the political balance in 2020, in a state expected to again have razor-thin margins.

Opposition to Fidel Castro and subsequent Cuban leaders has created generations of loyal GOP voters in Florida, and a strong position on Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, could have the same effect.

“There is broad consensus on the need for a democratic transition in Venezuela,” said Arnson.

“Where the consensus breaks down is regarding the means to that end, and especially the administration’s refusal to take military options off the table,” she added.

Most analysts doubt a threat of military action is realistic, as the United States has not deployed any substantial military presence in the region, but serves as a warning to Maduro to tread lightly, especially when it comes to its treatment of opposition leaders.

“The Maduro regime is not entirely convinced about this threat. That said, Trump is just unorthodox enough that perhaps there’s a sliver of possibility that this option that’s on the table becomes U.S. policy if certain developments were to happen,” Berg said.