White House

Trump threatens Venezuela and puts Cuba on notice

President Donald Trump threatened “further action” against Venezuela on Tuesday and promised not to lift sanctions against Cuba until the government in Havana makes fundamental reforms.

“We cannot stand by and watch,” Trump told world leaders gathered at the United Nations.

In a speech that moved quickly from criticism of America’s adversaries to dire warnings of nuclear war, Trump turned his attention briefly to communism, singling out Venezuela and Cuba for, he said, delivering only “anguish and failure” to its people.

He called on world leaders to do more to help the people of Venezuela and not look the other way as their government destroys democratic institutions.

“I ask every country represented here today to be prepared to do more to address this very real crisis,” Trump said. “We call for the full restoration of democracy and political freedoms in Venezuela. The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”

Trump was interrupted by a smattering of applause throughout the 40-minute speech. The clapping was loud and unified when he spoke of supporting the people of Venezuela, but was punctuated with pockets of silence when he blamed socialism.

The Trump administration has been ratcheting up the pressure on Caracas since Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro engineered a vote for a new constituent assembly that stripped democratically elected lawmakers of their power. Maduro has been the administration’s main target as he has led the once-mighty nation sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves as it has plummeted into a deepening economic crisis amid rising inflation. In recent months, anti-government demonstrations have broken out daily as desperate citizens take to the streets to protest the lack of even the most basic goods.

“This corrupt regime destroyed a prosperous nation by imposing a failed ideology that has produced poverty and misery everywhere it has been tried,” Trump said.

Venezuelan leaders immediately slammed the speech; Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza accused the United States of seeking "a change of regime by force."

Trump “pretends to rule the world, but does not even rule his own country,” Arreaza told reporters in New York after the speech.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart commended Trump for delivering a clear message of freedom against the “tyranny of despotic regimes” like those in Venezuela, Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

“The people in these countries continue to suffer under brutal repression, and often crushing shortages, while their oppressors spend lavishly to cling to power,” Diaz-Balart said. “These long-suffering people deserve the support of the international community to realize their democratic aspirations.”

Unsatisfied with the international response to Venezuela, the White House is using the United Nations General Assembly to build and strengthen an international coalition of support against Caracas. Trump’s speech was an expansion of concerns he raised Monday night during a dinner with Latin American Presidents Michel Temer of Brazil, Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Juan Carlos Varela of Panama as well as Argentinian Vice President Gabriela Michetti.

He reminded them of their trade relationships, which he called a “critical foundation for advancing peace and prosperity” among neighbors.

“Was one of the wealthiest countries in the world for a long period of time,” Trump told the group on Monday. “The people are starving and the country is collapsing. You didn't think that was possible. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed....Our goal must be to help them and restore their democracy.”

The leaders of the four countries were among 12 Latin American nations who signed a joint declaration in Lima last month, condemning the “breakdown of democratic order” in Venezuela and said they would not recognize any action taken by its “illegitimate” new constituent assembly.

The foreign affairs ministers of those 12 are expected to meet again Wednesday to take up the issue in New York. But Trump wants help from outside the hemisphere as well.

“We’d like to see the Europeans follow suit,” a senior administration official told McClatchy. “We’re very close. I think the Europeans recognize this is a big issue. They want to help address it. So hopefully we’ll get there pretty soon.”

While Trump did not mention using force in Venezuela, his strong language recalled the unscripted comments last month when he threatened “military action” against Venezuela — comments that alarmed and concerned allies in the hemisphere.

Trump’s comments on Cuba represented a sharp reversal of the tone and language used by former President Barack Obama, who sought to build bridges with Havana. The shift comes as the United States investigates the mysterious targeting of U.S. diplomats in Cuba with some type of sonic device.

Later this week, the Trump administration must decide whether to oppose a United Nations resolution that condemns the American trade embargo against Cuba. Last year, for the first time in a quarter century, the United States declined to oppose the resolution.

Trump is widely expected to return to the traditional “no” vote.

After Trump mocked North Korea’s Kim Jong Un as the “rocket man,” slamming the dictator for his relentless threats and pursuit of nuclear weapons, Latin America experts recalled another notorious UN moment — when former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez used the platform to call former U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” and said he could smell the “sulfur” the U.S. president left behind.

“At the time, Hugo Chavez was mocked in the U.S. for making the statements about George Bush being the devil,” said Gregory Weeks, the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist. “And here we have — a decade later — a U.S. president doing the same thing.”