After 24 hours of minute-by-minute updates on the failed push to deliver humanitarian aid in Venezuela, Marco Rubio tweeted his first omen at 2 a.m Sunday.
On the left was a picture of a machete-wielding Manuel Noriega, the leftist Panamanian dictator. On the right was Noriega’s jail photo in Miami. Fourteen hours later, Rubio posted a picture of a grinning Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi next to an image of his bloody face minutes before his death. He followed it up with a photo of communist Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu being led to his death after a military tribunal.
The posts, which included no further explanation, caused a stir. Many Venezuelans praised Rubio. Critics said the graphic photos don’t help Rubio’s cause of ending the humanitarian crisis and questioned the use of Gaddafi in particular, given Libya’s ongoing civil war and migration crisis. Social-media users reported the bloody Gaddafi image to Twitter, which resulted in its being flagged for containing sensitive material.
Rubio told the Miami Herald that the posts are “a reminder that things don’t turn out so well for dictators. Their own people get rid of them.”
Rubio said the posts were not a call for military force in Venezuela, and repeated that it’s President Donald Trump’s decision to use military force and that Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro is the only person being violent right now. Two of the three dictators in Rubio’s tweets, Gaddafi and Ceausescu, died at the hands of their own people. Noriega was ousted in a U.S. invasion and brought to the U.S. on drug and money laundering charges, and he spent the rest of his life in prison before his death in 2017.
“The Maduro regime has a lot of the attributes of the dictatorships that look strong and then suddenly collapse,” Rubio said. “It’s an insular circle of cronies who use benefits to get the security forces to protect them and to spy on each other. But it’s going to get harder and harder every day to provide those benefits to the security forces.”
The messaging on social media over the weekend — which also included Rubio trolling Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel by replying “Te vemos pronto” (see you soon) when Díaz-Canel said the push to bring humanitarian aid to Venezuela was a front for regime change — is the latest example of a Western Hemisphere crisis that has led Miami politicians to respond with rhetorical force, as they and many of their Venezuelan and Cuban constituents responded with rage at Maduro’s decision to block humanitarian aid on Saturday.
The tough talk is part of a larger pattern for Rubio and others in South Florida, where Maduro’s violence affects them and their families personally.
Rubio had bodyguards surrounding him for months after a credible death threat from Diosdado Cabello, a leading member of Maduro’s inner circle who was recently sanctioned for drug trafficking. And he posted the address and phone number of a Brickell restaurant after its celebrity chef fed Maduro a steak. Rubio’s denouncement of chef Salt Bae, posted on Twitter, caused jaws to drop in Washington but spurred a protest against the restaurant in Miami. A week ago, Rubio traveled to the Colombia-Venezuela border to denounce Maduro’s “terrorist, criminal regime.”
The responses from Venezuelans to Rubio’s social media messages are largely positive with “gracias senador” a familiar refrain. One user posted a picture of Maduro in response to Rubio’s Gaddafi photo with a picture of a YouTube loading screen next to Maduro, suggesting that his ouster is imminent. The tough talk and words of encouragement on social media mirror conversations in cafeterias and Venezuelan restaurants around South Florida, which happen to be filled with voters who could vote for Republicans in 2020.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, whose father led early opposition efforts against Fidel Castro, said Maduro is inching closer to being hanged upside down in a plaza by his own people, much like Italian leader Benito Mussolini in the final days of World War II.
Diaz-Balart raised his voice when told that some considered Rubio’s posts aggressive and counterproductive.
“You know what’s aggressive? Burning trucks of humanitarian aid. You know what’s aggressive? Shooting people who are trying to get humanitarian aid into the country. You know what’s aggressive? Allowing a foreign country to run your military and intelligence services, in other words the Cubans. That’s what’s aggressive. What’s aggressive is shooting in the face the daughter of one of my constituents when she was peacefully demonstrating, that’s what’s aggressive.”
California Rep. Ro Khanna, a liberal Democrat who was the first lawmaker to publicly disagree with the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as the Venezuela’s legitimate leader, said Rubio’s messaging is worrisome.
“I think it reminds Democrats that we’ve seen this movie before, this is the drumbeat that led us to topple Saddam, this is the drumbeat that led us to topple Gaddafi,” Khanna said. “These are evil, horrible people, but that doesn’t mean United States intervention is going to make things better. It’s easy to rally rhetorically against people who are morally repugnant. It’s much harder to answer the question of what’s in our strategic interest and what happens after you intervene.”
Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan-American Democrat and political consultant, said Rubio and Trump’s emotional Venezuela talk, expressed through their tweets or in-person rallies like last week’s at FIU, where Trump declared 2019 the “twilight of socialism,” resonates with Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans regardless of their political ideology.
“It does not help that super extreme left Democrats keep tweeting and saying things that actual Chavistas and government Twitter accounts are using to say there’s a Trump-led coup,” Poleo said. Maduro “has no political beliefs at all except ‘I want to take all the riches for myself and my friends.’”
Rubio and Diaz-Balart’s use of graphic images and argument that Maduro is more likely to end up at the end of a rope the longer he blocks humanitarian aid puts them at odds with one South Florida Democrat, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who said Rubio’s post was inappropriate.
“I’m very concerned to see how the use of aid is escalating violence at the border and I was very concerned to see the senator’s tweet,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “I thought it was very inappropriate for a senator to tweet that. I don’t know if he’s trying to threaten, but that’s not the way to find a peaceful resolution.”
Mucarsel-Powell also questioned the strategy of delivering humanitarian aid across three checkpoints on the Venezuelan border that could be easily blocked by a few hundred soldiers, a move that wasn’t successful from a practical standpoint but resulted in worldwide attention to images of aid trucks being burned.
Miami U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala didn’t want to comment on Rubio’s messages. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t respond to a request for comment. Both of them rallied with Venezuelan opposition figures on Saturday in Weston, a Broward city in Wasserman Schultz’s district with one of the largest Venezuelan populations in the United States.
Rubio said the messaging on social media is an effective way to let Venezuelans know what is going on and how seriously leaders like himself take Maduro’s actions. He said their largely positive responses to his tweets validate his messaging choices.
“Ultimately it gives us the opportunity to talk to a lot of people, including the Venezuelan people when the Chinese aren’t blocking the internet over there and the activists working in Colombia,” Rubio said. “It’s effective in a situation like that.”
Rubio said he’s hopeful that more countries who recognized Guaidó will cut off trade for Venezuelan oil, target money held by Maduro cronies being held overseas and prevent their family members from obtaining visas after the aid was blocked. He says oil sanctions will begin to affect Maduro’s inner circle soon.
“The sanctions have been in place for three and a half weeks. Guaidó has been in place for four weeks. That’s not a long time and only now are the sanctions being felt,” Rubio said.
Khanna, who saw Rubio’s tweets, said they were purely political, designed for Republicans to own the Venezuela issue in a state Donald Trump almost surely needs to win if he wants a second term.
“It’s domestic politics, it’s Florida in 2020, but ultimately we need to look at what’s best for the country and ultimately we shouldn’t be making foreign policy by tweets.”
Diaz-Balart said the use of graphic imagery and rhetoric is intentional because “that’s what the people experience” every day. A violent end for Maduro and his inner circle is coming, he said, led by the Venezuelan people if he doesn’t relent:
“I firmly believe that they could hang them upside down.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.