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Venezuelan Political Crisis Is Destabilizing Surrounding Region, Sen. Rubio Says


When President Trump refers to Latin America in his State of the Union speech tonight, he will surely talk of it, in part, in terms of a border wall. He wants that wall to seal off migrants from Mexico and Central America, among other places.

But there's another Latin American story in which the United States is deeply involved right now. The U.S. is working to oust Nicolas Maduro, the longtime president of Venezuela. It has recognized the leader of the legislature, Juan Guaido, as the country's true leader. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been influential in shaping the U.S. approach, and he is on the line. Senator, welcome back to the program.

MARCO RUBIO: Thank you for having me on.

INSKEEP: Thanks for joining us. Guaido, of course, has declared himself president. But Maduro, as you know, senator, is not leaving. Is this strategy working?

RUBIO: Well, first, let's remember something. He didn't declare himself president. That makes it sound like he just sort of assumed power. They have a constitution...

INSKEEP: Understood - they're referring to the constitution, and it gets to be...

RUBIO: Yeah, but - no. What I mean - it's important for your listeners to know. So under their - the election - the whole world overwhelmingly did not view the election last year as legitimate of Maduro. So there's a vacancy in the presidency. When there's a vacancy, the speaker of the National Assembly - the president - becomes the interim president for a limited period of time until - and then his job, No. 1, is to serve in that interim role and to call for new elections.


RUBIO: And your question - is it working? Look. Ultimately, this belongs to the people of Venezuela. This is not a U.S. strategy. This is an international response in support of democracy. Yesterday, 13 European countries lined up. The majority and - the majority of the countries and the largest economies in Latin America support this position. So the U.S. is one of - it's clearly a very influential country - but one of a broad international coalition supporting the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.

INSKEEP: Understand that this is a matter of principle on many levels. But of course, in terms of power, in terms of effectiveness, you want it to work. Are things moving in the right direction, even though Maduro says he's not going?

RUBIO: Well, look. There's no guarantee that any of these strategies work. When someone is willing to jail and kill people to stay in power, it's difficult to move them. And so the key here is that the people that are doing the jailing and the killing on behalf of Maduro stop doing it. And it's important for these military leaders to understand that - but I don't think they want to see a bloodbath. I don't think these military leaders, frankly, will listen to orders to fire on their own people. There's growing evidence of that.

I think the question truly becomes, for them - for many of them - is, will there be retribution against them? Will there be a military purge? Will they be drived (ph) out of power? And I think the - there's an amnesty that's been offered by the opposition to - and that - I hope that amnesty will be recognized by the international community, as well, so can - we can remove the last fear that exists in the minds of a lot of these military leaders who are what are keeping Maduro in power illegitimately.

INSKEEP: Senator, I want to play out a kind of worst-case scenario, if I can. The administration, as you know, has said all options are on the table. It is understandable the administration would be vague about what it might do in one situation or another, but because you're not in the administration I presume you can speak a bit more freely.

Let's say that the Venezuelan government goes ahead with court proceedings against Guaido. Well, they've already begun, as a matter of fact. Let's say they arrest him. Let's say they arrest other leaders of the opposition. Would it be appropriate for the United States to threaten or to use military force in a case like that?

RUBIO: Well, I would say this. You know, military force of the United States exists for purposes of protecting our national security and our national interests. And anytime there is a threat to our national security or our national interests, the U.S. has a right to use military force. I think that, by and large, that applies to Venezuela, but that applies to anywhere on the planet. And so I think ultimately, that is the legal rationale for the use of military force. Do I...

INSKEEP: Would you want that to be done in that case?

RUBIO: Well, I - I'm not going to speculate about hypotheticals. No. 2, it's not my decision to make. I'm not the commander in chief. And No. 3, I don't think about military force the way others do because I don't believe that's the best way to reach the best result here. The best way to reach the best result here is a peaceful transition to a new, legitimate election that elects a new president of Venezuela.

And military force - something a lot of people are talking about - look. That option always exists for purposes of protecting our national security, and it is a threat to our national security. That option is most definitely on the table. But otherwise, I think the large - you know, I have meetings and conversations about Venezuela every single day, and military force is something the press talks about a lot more than anybody else involved in this.

INSKEEP: Do you think that other tools are more effective? I want to ask you about something that John Bolton, the national security adviser, said the other day, senator. He spoke with Hugh Hewitt, the radio host, and he was talking about Venezuela's big ally, Cuba. As you know very well, the Cubans have sent security forces. They're helping the Venezuelan government. Venezuela, for many years, has sent Cuba oil and been helpful in that way to Cuba. And here's some of what John Bolton said about all that.


JOHN BOLTON: It's not an accident that around the hemisphere, people now call the country Cubazuela (ph) because the Cubans are so much a part of the Maduro regime. And that's why the stakes are high here - because a major defeat for Cuba and Venezuela could have ramifications in Cuba, as well.

INSKEEP: Interesting at the end there, Senator Rubio. Do you believe that a change in government in Venezuela could help to undermine the communist government in Cuba, too?

RUBIO: Well, I don't - not - it's just - not just about undermining the government in Cuba. I'd begin by saying it would have a massive hemispheric response. Let's start with this, OK? If you look at Colombia - Colombia today is a country that is facing very serious challenges to its own stability. It houses close to a million, if not more, migrants that have come over from Venezuela at a cost that's placing a tremendous strain on them.


RUBIO: Meanwhile, within - Venezuela's harboring the ELN, which is a terrorist group that also - whose leaders are in Cuba. The same is happening increasingly in Brazil and Peru and Ecuador. So the whole region is being destabilized by this. Now, will it have an impact on Cuba? Sure.

They make a billion dollars a year - over a billion dollars a year that they're paid for their security and espionage services. So the loss of a billion dollars will absolutely have an impact on that regime and something that I would welcome. Anything that's bad for a communist dictatorship is something I support.

INSKEEP: Is that part of the strategic reason, the strategic motivation for the United States to be involved here? You go after Venezuela's government as a way to get to Cuba.

RUBIO: I think part - it's certainly a byproduct of our engagement, but it most certainly is not the central rationale for it. The bottom line is Venezuela's tragedy can no longer be ignored. It threatens - it is destabilizing the entire region. I cannot emphasize enough - I encourage you to interview leaders from Colombia.

The - what this is doing to Colombia, to Peru, to Ecuador and increasingly to Brazil, especially Colombia at the outset, threatens to destabilize these countries because of the amount of money and resources they are pouring into dealing with the migrant crisis. By the end of this year, five - if trends continue, 5 million Venezuelans will have left the country in less than a decade into neighboring countries.

INSKEEP: Senator Rubio, just got about 30 seconds, but I'd like to ask about the border wall, which I'm sure the president will reference tonight. He's talked about declaring a state of emergency. Going around Congress, going around you - in a couple of sentences, should he declare a state of emergency?

RUBIO: Well, I think it's an urgent problem in the border. Congress should do it. I do not believe that a state of emergency is the appropriate or best way to do it. Obviously, I'd love to see - the president and the White House will make their arguments as to what their legal standing is and authority is to make that decision, but it is not something that I'm supportive of. I'd rather have - and it lets Congress off the hook. We need a border wall as part of border security, and Congress should do it.

INSKEEP: Senator Rubio, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

RUBIO: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That is Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.