Decrying socialism, Trump looks to solidify crucial Latino support in Florida

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

Trump slams "tyrannical" government of Venezuela

Decrying what he portrayed as the pitfalls of socialist governance in Latin America, President Trump crafted a not-so-thinly-veiled campaign pitch to the region's diaspora in Florida, a battleground state crucial to his 2020 reelection bid.

"We are here to proclaim a new day is coming in Latin America," the president told a raucous crowd peppered with tricolor Venezuelan flags on Monday. "In Venezuela and across the Western Hemisphere, socialism is dying and liberty prosperity and democracy are being reborn."

Although it was not an official campaign event, Mr. Trump's visit to Florida International University's (FIU) Miami campus resembled one of his signature "Make America Great Again" rallies. With fiery rebukes of the "horrors" of socialism, the president denounced the leftist ruling governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba — which his administration has branded the "Troika of Tyranny" — a departure from the "America first" foreign policy views he usually espouses.

Drawing fervent cheers, Mr. Trump touted his administration's tough stance against the increasingly-authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro, signaling that the ouster of the socialist Venezuelan leader could also facilitate the fall of leftist governments in Cuba and Nicaragua.

"We reaffirm that solidarity with the long suffering people of Cuba, and Nicaragua, and people everywhere living under socialist and communist regimes," Mr. Trump said to a fervent applause. "And to those who would try to oppose socialism on the United States, we again deliver a very simple message: America will never be a socialist country."

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the crisis in Venezuela during a visit to Florida International University in Miami, Florida, U.S., February 18, 2019. KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS

Apart from serving as an implied criticism of new progressive members of Congress who identify as democratic socialists, Brian Fonseca, director of FIU's institute for public policy, said there's a clear electoral strategy behind the president's campus visit and his scathing condemnation of socialism in Venezuela and other Latin American countries.

"2020 is not very far away," Fonseca told CBS News. "And I suspect this was really about a message for a variety of different stakeholders, certainly a message about U.S. foreign policy to the governments of Cuba, Venezuelan and Nicaragua, but also a message to both constituents and opposition here in the United States."

"Florida is a very important state in the elections. And it's one that the Republicans seem to have very narrow edge on now. And certainly, the time of this has everything to do with the national election," he added.

The growing Latin American diaspora in Florida has given Democrats some of hope of solidifying their electoral power in the state in recent years. But Mr. Trump carried the state in 2016 by nearly 113,000 votes and the two high-profile senate and gubernatorial races during the November midterm elections were won by Republicans.

The state's large Cuban-American community — which has been a loyal GOP voting bloc for decades — was the only Latino group to back Mr. Trump in 2016, with more than half of Cuban voters casting their ballots for the president, according to the Pew Research Center.

Fonseca believes the president and other Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart are hoping to transform the Venezuela community in the U.S., particularly in south Florida, into a key Republican constituency through an aggressive crackdown on Maduro's regime, in much the same way the GOP was able to woo Cuban exiles through a hardline stance on the communist leadership in Havana.

Along with recognizing the main opposition leader in Venezuela, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, as the country's interim president and issuing sweeping sanctions against the largest state-owned oil company, the Trump administration has pledged more than $20 million in humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people.

The White House strategy to court the exiled Venezuelan and Nicaraguan communities — and maintain the loyalty of the Cuban diaspora — will make it more challenging for Democrats to win Florida's coveted 24 electoral votes in future elections, Fonseca added.

"Democrats are going to have an uphill battle for Latinos in the state of Florida going forward," he said. "It's hard for Democrats, in my opinion, to come out and counter a message that's predicated on human rights and humanitarian assistance."

Florida's Democrats, who have enthusiastically backed the administration's policy in Venezuela, understand the president's political strategy here and accuse him of trying to exploit a humanitarian crisis for political gain. Rep. Donna Shalala, who represents a majority-Latino district in south Florida with a sizable community of Venezuelan exiles, criticized the president for not backing a bipartisan bill to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans in the U.S. during his visit to Miami.

"I'll reiterate that a path to freedom and democracy for the Venezuelan people has strong bipartisan support in the United States Congress," she wrote in a statement. "This is not a partisan issue, and the Administration must stop approaching it that way."

Neither Shalala nor any of other Democratic member of Florida's congressional delegation were invited by the White House to the president's speech on Monday, her office told CBS News.

Asked whether the joint White House, GOP campaign strategy will hinder the Democratic Party's electoral infrastructure in Florida, the Democratic National Committee's Hispanic media director Enrique Gutiérrez told CBS News his party "supports the Venezuelan people as they demand the right to select their leaders democratically."

"Democrats in Congress are working to ensure that the United States uses all of its economic and political tools to continue supporting the restoration of democracy in Venezuela — from holding Maduro accountable to funding humanitarian relief to providing Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans fleeing the catastrophic and dangerous conditions in their country," Gutiérrez added.

Regardless of whether the U.S. and the international community succeeds in forcing Maduro to step down, Fonseca believes Venezuelan exiles in America have already recognized the Trump's administration's aggressive rhetoric and policies against Maduro.

"Either way this goes, I think you'll see that this administration seems to have done more than the previous administrations in taking a hardline approach — I don't think the Venezuelan diaspora community will forget that," he said.

First published on February 19, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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