Trump says he’d meet with Maduro to discuss ‘a peaceful exit from power’ in Venezuela

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MIAMI — President Donald Trump said Monday that he would consider meeting with embattled Venezuelan ruler Nicolás Maduro, but administration officials say there’s no ongoing effort to secure a meeting with a foreign leader viewed by the U.S. as a narco-terrorist and illegitimate president.

“Unlike the radical left, I will ALWAYS stand against socialism and with the people of Venezuela,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against the oppressive Maduro regime! I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”

Trump’s willingness to meet with the socialist ruler could have political ramifications in Venezuela, a once-thriving South American nation now racked by poverty and political turmoil. It could also complicate Trump’s reelection campaign, which has aggressively courted Hispanic voters in Florida, home to narrowly decided presidential elections and the largest community of Venezuelan exiles in the country.

“Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but admires thugs and dictators like Nicolás Maduro,” former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in November, tweeted Sunday night. “As President, I will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy.”

Trump’s tweet came after Axios published details Sunday from an interview with the president in which Trump said he would consider meeting with Maduro despite having declined previous invitations. Meanwhile, Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, is releasing a book Tuesday that includes details about Trump’s “waffling” on his decision to support Juan Guaidó — the Venezuelan opposition leader recognized by the U.S. early last year as Venezuela’s rightful elected president.

Trump has previously hinted at a willingness to meet with Maduro. In 2018, as Maduro flew to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, Trump said he was “willing to meet with anybody.” The Miami Herald reported last year that White House officials were willing to negotiate with Maduro his exit from power.

The U.S. Department of State did not reply to a request for comment. Two administration officials told McClatchy that a meeting is not an active goal for the Trump administration, and that the president’s tweet does not amount to a change in U.S. policy. On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump “continues to recognize Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela.”

“He has not lost confidence at all,” she said.

The Trump administration has spent months, if not years, pressuring Maduro to step down.

It backed Guaidó in January 2019 when the elected leader of Venezuela’s national assembly declared himself the rightfully elected president of Venezuela, and invited him to visit the White House and attend Trump’s State of the Union speech in February. The Trump administration has also increased sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba, which has helped support Maduro with intelligence and security services.

In March, the Justice Department indicted Maduro and 14 current and former Venezuelan officials and charged them in Miami, New York and Washington with narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and other charges.

Juan Cruz, former National Security Council director for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Trump, said in an interview Monday that Trump’s comments about meeting Maduro are not entirely surprising but could be harmful to the Venezuelan opposition.

“The President can say that and still be supportive of the Venezuelan people and the opposition. It is entirely consistent with his belief that the big problems only need his personal involvement,” Cruz said. “But the comments risk potentially weakening Guaidó to a point the regime could mistakenly interpret the President’s words,” and even consider arresting the National Assembly leader.

“That,” Cruz said, “would be a huge miscalculation by the regime.”

On Monday afternoon, Guaidó’s ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Vecchio, tweeted his appreciation for Trump’s “unrestricted and consistent support … to the efforts of the Interim Government’s President Juan Guaidó for the restitution of democracy and freedom of Venezuela.”

Trump has also made his hard-line stance against Maduro — and by extension the socialist regime in Cuba — an integral part of his reelection campaign in Florida, home to an estimated 400,000 Venezuelans and more than 1 million Cuban Americans. As more Venezuelans have moved to Miami, Maduro’s status as a villain in South Florida politics has begun to rival that of the Castro brothers.

Trump gave an official speech about ending socialism in the Americas at Florida International University in February 2019 and sent Vice President Mike Pence to launch the Latinos for Trump coalition in Miami in June of last year during an event that touched heavily on the Trump administration’s fight against socialism.

Democrats, who have called Trump hypocritical for his resistance to provide temporary protected status shielding undocumented Venezuelans in the U.S. from deportation, quickly reacted to the Axios article Sunday night. Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Luciana Perez-Fernandez, a Venezuelan American, said “Trump’s actions are weakening Juan Guaidó and pushing away our allies in the region who are working to restore democracy in Venezuela.”

But Miami Republicans — many of whom criticized former President Barack Obama for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba and meeting in 2016 with then-President Raúl Castro — are so far standing by Trump. Many praised the president for escalating sanctions against the country and backing Guaidó in early 2019 after a contingent of Florida lawmakers met with the president in Washington.

“The unprecedented actions taken by the Trump Administration demonstrate a commitment to restoring democratic order and the rule of law in Venezuela,” Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, among the most vocal and visible U.S. politicians pushing to oust Maduro, said in a statement issued through his office. “The U.S. has always been willing to facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy. What it has made clear it will not do is negotiate with the Maduro regime remaining in power or allow negotiations to be used as a delay tactic.”

Republican Miami-Dade mayor and congressional candidate Carlos Gimenez, who warned Sunday night that “diplomatic meetings with (Maduro) will do nothing to help the Venezuelan people,” said Monday that he was “glad to hear that the President clarified what he meant and re-committed himself (Monday) to supporting the Venezuelan people.”

And Ernesto Ackerman, president of Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, an organization formed to get Venezuelan and Hispanic voters involved in the U.S. political process, said it’s hard to believe Trump would meet with Maduro while the Justice Department pursues charges against him.

“How can he meet with Maduro? He can’t,” said Ackerman, a Republican. “Where are they going to meet, on Mars?”

Republicans also shot back at Democrats Monday, saying it’s hypocritical for people who were comfortable with Obama meeting with Castro to now criticize Trump for considering a meeting with Maduro. As vice president from 2009 through 2017, Biden was Obama’s point person with heads of state in much of Central and South America.

“It’s a policy of appeasement from Obama,” said Mercedes Schlapp, a Cuban American senior adviser to the Trump campaign and a former White House aide. “That’s very different from what we see with President Trump.”

Some Republican politicians, including Florida Sen. Rick Scott, have tweeted a picture of then Vice President Biden laughing during a short exchange with Maduro at the inauguration of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in 2015.

McEnany cited a Yahoo report saying Biden was laughing while complimenting Maduro’s hair.

But Juan S. Gonzalez, who acted as a translator during the exchange as a former adviser to Biden, told the Herald that his boss laughed because Maduro asked the U.S. government to raise the price of oil. And that the original Brazilian report used by Yahoo was based on Maduro’s recollection of the meeting.

Biden then told Maduro, who was seeking a dialogue with the U.S., that the Obama administration would not do any such thing unless Maduro committed to releasing all political prisoners, among other conditions, Gonzalez said.

“What the Trump campaign is doing is misrepresenting Vice President Biden’s engagement” with Maduro, Gonzalez said, and trying to “distract from the terrible administration’s response to the coronavirus.”


(Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.)


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