Marco Rubio’s efforts to increase international pressure on Nicolás Maduro’s regime, and to push the Trump administration to take a tough stance on Venezuela, have paid off big.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday recognized opposition leader and National Assembly head Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, setting off a potential power struggle in Caracas amid widespread protests. Trump’s decision was quickly backed up by other countries.
The Republican senator from Florida followed a “very consistent approach to show that Maduro was bad for Venezuela, for the entire region,” said a source close to Rubio. The senator’s careful planning over the past two years also included “how Venezuela would be without Maduro and what the United States had to do to make sure that democracy can really take root” there.
But for that work to work, “the stars must be aligned,” the source said. The pieces began to fall into place after President Trump took office, governments with similar political leanings were elected in Latin America and the new national security team as well as the new secretary of state were on the same page.
The rise of a new, young opposition leader to the presidency of the National Assembly was the final catalyst.
Details about the decision to recognize Guaidó were finalized at a meeting on Tuesday night at the White House. President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor John Bolton, senators Rubio and Scott, Representative Mario Díaz-Balart and Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis, discussed possible scenarios and what steps to take if Maduro refuses to cede power or resorts to violence, sources familiar with the discussions said.
The administration has not said publicly that other measures could be taken against Maduro and his allies but has studied the possibility of an oil embargo and the inclusion of Venezuela in the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Maduro said on Wednesday in a televised speech that he broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. and did not recognize Guaidó as interim president, but it is not clear whether he still has the army’s backing.
“I went to the White House yesterday and spoke with the president about what to do in Venezuela,” Sen. Rick Scott said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We need to declare Venezuela as a terrorist state. Clearly it is. The way Maduro has treated his citizens is disgusting.”
According to a source familiar with what was discussed in the White House, there was “unanimity in that room” regarding the way forward with Venezuela. Trump asked attendees their thoughts on what might work in diplomatic relations with that country, and DeSantis said the United States should consider what the legitimately elected leaders in Venezuela decide to do.
“All the options are on the table,” said a senior Trump administration official during a conference call with journalists on Wednesday, referring to the next steps the U.S. will take if Maduro insists on ignoring the Venezuelan constitution. “From an economic point of view, we still have a lot of bargaining power. We have barely scratched the surface.”
Rubio was traveling to the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday and was unavailable for comment. He was active on social media, praising the administration’s decision to recognize Guaidó and issuing warnings to Maduro.
“I know for a fact that if Maduro responds with violence ALL options are on the table,” Rubio tweeted. “U.S. diplomats in Venezuela should present their credentials to President Guaidó. Maduro has no authority to expel anyone. And trust me on this one, if Maduro is stupid enough to test Donald Trump by harming any U.S. diplomat, the consequences would be swift & severe.”
Díaz-Balart, who has called for sweeping sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector and for more action against the Maduro regime, said it is important for the United States to wait and see what happens in the hours and days after recognizing Guaidó.
“There are many things now that can happen. This is an important moment in Venezuela,” Díaz-Balart said. “ What will the thugs that are around Maduro do? How will they react? Do they understand that it is time to move on and step aside? Or will they continue to commit atrocities against the Venezuelan people? What will the armed forces do? This is a very, very critical moment.”
In a speech before the U.S. Senate on Jan. 15, in which Rubio publicly requested the administration recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, the senator presented what could be the next steps for the U.S. government. Rubio said that the U.S. should expel ambassadors appointed by Maduro and freeze the assets of the regime to promote the new government with an eye toward organizing future elections.
The decision to recognize Guaidó as leader of the Venezuelan opposition and president of the National Assembly is “a decision exclusively of the president,” the senior White House official told reporters. But Rubio prepared the way by making Venezuela a priority when speaking to the president since the early days of the Trump administration.
The senator has been working with several Latin American governments, the Organization of American States and the Lima Group — a 12-nation organization established in 2017 to find a peaceful solution in Venezuela — to promote sanctions against the Maduro regime and to have a plan ready to support the democratic transition and confront the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Most of the Latin American governments joined the United States’ recognition of Guaidó.
“The Government of Chile, like the Lima group, and especially Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, Canada, and also other countries of the world such as the United States and France, have decided to recognize this Presidency as Juan Guaidó’s,” Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said.
The rare hemispheric consensus is the kind of achievement that the administration can now cite to explain why it has been so interested in Venezuela.
“As we have said before, the United States, together with the international community, including the Organization of American States, the Lima Group and the European Union, support the Venezuelan people in their quest to restore their democracy,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday. “We will work closely with the legitimately elected National Assembly to facilitate Venezuela’s transition to democracy and the rule of law, in accordance with the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The United States is also willing to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Venezuela, as conditions permit.”
Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official and now vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, said that this week’s decision is partly due to Rubio’s work from the early days of the Trump administration. Farnsworth recalled that Rubio got Trump to meet with Venezuelan activist Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan politician Leopoldo López.
“I think he’s been effective, if you judge effective by getting the administration in the direction [Rubio’s] been urging,” Farnsworth said. Farnsworth noted that Rubio’s constant and public push for additional actions in Venezuela through potentially wide-ranging oil sanctions and the designation of the country as a state sponsor of terrorism gives the Trump administration political space to take action.
“By being very vocal about actions that you would like to see, it creates political space for action to be seen as timely,” Farnsworth said. “We can argue about specific things he’s recommending, but by taking a high-profile position, he’s causing other people to react and move.”
Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to Venezuela under presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush said Rubio is clearly the go-to source on Capitol Hill for Latin American issues. He said the active work of Rubio and Sen. Bob Menendez on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee paid off when it comes to the Trump administration making Venezuela a relative priority in a foreign policy discussion that is largely dominated by Russia and China.
“I think in Congress you could say that Senator Rubio is certainly at the forefront of the position of a stronger U.S. attitude or posture toward Venezuela,” Reich said.
Miami Herald reporter David Smiley contributed to this report.