Last night, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) brought Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, with him to the White House. Afterward, President Trump tweeted a photo of himself with Tintori, Rubio, and Vice President Mike Pence (pictured right), and a message that the Venezuelan government should let Lopez out of prison immediately. Lopez was jailed in 2014 after being accused by the authorities of inciting violence during a round of mass protests against the socialist government of Venezuela. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government banned CNN from the country after a report on alleged passport fraud at the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq or another on school food shortages.
The responses from the increasingly normalized fringes of the left and right to these two stories came through the prism of domestic politics—helping to reveal how U.S. foreign policy is often subordinated to petty partisan domestic concerns. ThinkProgress‘ Ian Millhiser asked on Twitter if Tintori was Rubio’s wife and why she was dressed as a pirate. The same evening the photo and message, which identified Tintori, was tweeted out, it became an internet artifact of it its own, separated from its original tweet. TPM‘s Josh Marshall tweeted asking whether Tintori had been captured and “was is Marco off the island?” Such thought leaders may not see a serious president in Trump, but the president’s lack of seriousness doesn’t make U.S. foreign policy any less so.
The U.S. has spent years funding opposition groups in Venezuela, with the result largely being to give the Maduro government more of a pretext to use the U.S. and opposition support for (classically) liberal values as a reason to dismiss, delegitimize, and suppress opposition political movements. President Obama declared Venezuela a “national security threat” in 2015, imposing sanctions on a number of government officials and calling on the government to release Lopez and other opposition leaders.
The White House recognized at the time how the U.S. posture toward Venezuela was being used. “We’ve seen many times that the Venezuelan government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela,” read a White House statement. “These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan government to deal with the grave situation it faces.”
The most effective foreign policy tool to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans—the encouragement of free trade with and within South America while offering a deregulated environment for new products like cryptocurrency that afford people more freedom despite governments’ efforts—doesn’t seem a likely decision in the protectionist Trump administration. Trump said on the campaign trail the U.S. had to be on the side of oppressed people in Venezuela and across South America, pointing out its socialist government had ruined Venezuela. Maduro in 2015 resisted comparisons to Trump by some opposition leaders after he closed several border crossings and deported hundreds of Colombians. Earlier this week, President Trump imposed new sanctions on a Venezuelan vice president, accusing him of being involved in drug trafficking.
Trump supporters, meanwhile, this week celebrated the same socialist government Trump decries—because of its ban of CNN. Gateway Pundit, a peddler of fake news that nevertheless has acquired White House press credentials, reported the story under the headline “Venezuela Kicks CNN Out for Making Up Fake News,” citing a report that attributed the ban to the story on school food shortages. Maduro was “just the latest world leader to call them out for being downright dishonest,” according to Gateway Pundit, which joins far left apologists in denying the self-inflicted horror socialism has visited on Venezuela. In the Trumpkin oppression stack, CNN apparently trumps bona fide socialists.
The ascendance of Trump has encouraged some on both sides to turn off their critical thinking skills. Yet the perceived lack of seriousness in Trump doesn’t make what happens at home or abroad any less serious. Trump has so far generally embraced a lot of the established positions on U.S. foreign policy despite an anti-establishment tone to his campaign. But perhaps his haphazard and often repellant approach will be a cause to pause and reflect for foreign opposition leaders who instinctively turn to the U.S. for support they believe they need to succeed. Their successes can be more substantive and lasting, and more immune to attempts at delegitimization via accusations of U.S. “interference.”