By JOSHUA GOODMAN Associated Press
MIAMI (AP) — Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday urged the Trump administration to stay the course in Venezuela and reject the temptation to engage directly with Nicolas Maduro as the embattled socialist rides out growing international condemnation and punishing U.S. sanctions.
The Florida Republican has been a strong supporter of the Trump administration’s policy toward Venezuela and its recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the nation’s rightful leader.
But some have questioned the effectiveness of that strategy given Maduro’s firm control of the government administration and the armed forces, as well as fatigue among regular Venezuelans with the opposition’s unfulfilled promise to oust the socialist leader.
Rubio, in an interview with The Associated Press, said the U.S. and Guaidó need to do more to overcome the military’s mistrust and explain better the opposition’s pledge of amnesty so that they switch sides in the year-old political battle.
“Maduro is surrounded by a bunch of people who benefit greatly from him being in power,” he said. “No matter what problems they have with Maduro, or hopes they have of replacing him in the future, they have not been able to identify a way of getting rid of Maduro that doesn’t imperil them, the money they’ve stolen, the benefits their families accrued and most importantly their ability to stay out of jail.”
While Rubio said he doesn’t expect a quick turnaround, he believes additional pressure can be applied by governments in Europe and Latin America, which have been slower to apply sanctions.
He said he was encouraged by Mexico’s strong condemnation of Maduro’s use of security forces to block Guaidó from attending the inaugural session of the National Assembly on Sunday. Allies of Maduro then tried to wrest control of the opposition-dominated legislature, which the U.S. considers to be Venezuela’s last democratic institution.
Trump since taking office has held talks with a number of strongmen hostile to U.S., such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. And recently, Erik Prince — a major Republican donor and founder of the security firm Blackwater — traveled to Caracas for a meeting with Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, stirring speculation that he was seeking to open a back channel on behalf of the Trump administration.
But Rubio rejected that such an approach were advisable in Venezuela, which isn’t developing nuclear weapons like other U.S. adversaries.
Echoing comments from the State Department, he said he was certain that Prince, whose sister is U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, didn’t have the backing of the Trump administration when he traveled to Caracas. Prince himself hasn’t spoken about the visit.
“America’s politics is filled with people who believe they can parachute into some country, offer themselves up as some kind of intermediary and in the process gain a business angle,”said Rubio. “They create stories people point to for a day or two but ultimately they result in nothing.”
Nonetheless, he insisted that the growing influence of Russia, Cuba and China, as well as the proliferation inside the country of leftist rebels from Colombia and drug-trafficking groups, are major challenges that are hurting U.S. national security interests in Latin America.
“This isn’t a geopolitical problem halfway around the world. It’s happening in our hemisphere,” he said. “Sometimes your choices aren’t between two ideal choices but between which of the two difficult ones is the right one.”
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