Amid a surge in coronavirus cases, President Donald Trump flew to Florida on Friday on a visit that melded his administration's policy toward Venezuela and Cuba and his reelection bid in one of the nation's biggest swing states.
Trump hosted a round-table discussion in Doral, in Miami-Dade County, home to one of the largest Venezuelan communities in the United States. Flanked by Venezuelan and Cuban dissidents, Trump reiterated his administration's support for the people of Venezuela and Cuba.
"We are standing with the righteous leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaido," Trump said, adding that he had ended the "Obama-Biden sellout to the Castro regime."
Trump laid out a similar message at an earlier event Friday as he met with leaders of the U.S. Southern Command to review the counternarcotics operation in the Caribbean, an effort his administration has described partly as an attempt to intercept funds going to the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
"We're going to fight for Venezuela and we're going to be fighting for our friends from Cuba," Trump said.
Last year, Guaido, who was then Venezuelan National Assembly president, took over the role of interim president, replacing Maduro. Washington's early support for Guaido helped him gain diplomatic recognition from about 60 countries. But a series of sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba and a proposal for a peaceful transition presented by the U.S. State Department have failed to persuade Maduro to leave office.
In June, Trump was criticized for saying he was open to meeting with Maduro. Trump later clarified he would do so only to discuss the Venezuelan president's exit.
Shifting Venezuela policy
Presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden reminded voters of what he described as Trump's shifting Venezuela foreign policy in a statement Friday.
"Just like his response to this pandemic, the president has been unreliable and self-centered in his approach to the issues closest to the Venezuelan people," Biden said.
He renewed his pledge to grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans to allow them to live and work in the United States and said he would lead a coordinated international effort to help Venezuela's failing economy. He called Trump's Florida visit a "photo-op and a distraction from his failures."
At the round-table event in Florida, Trump hit back at his Democratic opponent. As attendees shared their experiences of fleeing from socialist countries, Trump described Biden as a puppet of progressive Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and "the militant left."
Despite sanctions and diplomatic pressure by the Trump administration, the issue of Venezuela remains unresolved.
"The power struggle between Juan Guaido and Nicolas Maduro endures with no end in sight," wrote Moises Rendon, director of The Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This underscores the limitations of sanctions as a foreign policy tool and calls into question their role within the U.S. maximum pressure campaign on the Maduro regime."
Florida has 29 electoral votes and is considered an important swing state that could decide the November presidential election. Trump narrowly won the state in 2016 over then-Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by 1.2 percentage points. According to a Fox News poll, Biden is currently ahead of Trump in Florida by 9 percentage points.
There is waning confidence in Trump from the Venezuelan American community in Florida, Luisana Perez Fernandez, deputy communications director of the state's Democratic Party, told VOA.
This visit was for Trump to "continue lip service," said Perez Fernandez, who came to the U.S. from Venezuela in 2011.
"It's been more than a year of him talking and talking about Venezuela, but Maduro is still in power and Venezuelans are still being deported," she said.
But Republicans describe elevated energy on the ground to reelect the president.
"Miami is filled with immigrants fleeing socialist tyranny," Maricel Cobitz, vice president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women, told VOA. "They lived these lies. The enthusiasm for President Trump and capitalism is overwhelming and real."
Trump's visit to Florida appeared to be part of an outreach to Hispanic voters ahead of the November election. Almost a quarter of state residents consider themselves Hispanic.
On Thursday at the White House, the president signed an executive order "to improve Hispanic American access to educational and economic opportunities."
Overshadowed by pandemic
Florida reported nearly 11,500 more cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total number of cases to nearly 245,000 across the state. The state's health department reported nearly 440 more hospitalizations Friday, the largest single-day increase the state has seen thus far.
Trump allies Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez are both facing criticism for their handling of the pandemic. DeSantis downplayed the outbreak early on but has since been forced to pause the state's reopening amid a resurgence of the virus.
Despite the surge of cases, Republicans still plan to hold their national convention next month in Jacksonville, Florida.
The Trump campaign has been criticized for holding rallies and other large gatherings amid the pandemic. On Friday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump was postponing a rally in New Hampshire set for Saturday, citing a tropical storm forecast to hit in the area.
Trump ended his Florida trip with a private fundraiser at Hillsboro Beach before returning to the White House.
Since the Trump administration increased its maritime counternarcotics focus April 1, the U.S. has added 75% more surveillance aircraft and 65% more ships to support drug interdictions, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday during the U.S. Southern Command meeting with Trump.
The enhanced operations have allowed the U.S. and its allies to ramp up targeting of known maritime smugglers by 60%, Esper added, disrupting more than 122 metric tons of drugs and denying $2 billion in drug profits since late March.
That means that in the last three months alone, the U.S. and allies interdicted nearly half the amount of drugs that they interdicted in all of last year. According to SOUTHCOM data provided to VOA, the U.S. and its allies interdicted 273 metric tons of drugs in 2018 and 280 metric tons of drugs in 2019.
Still, these counternarcotics operations are making just a small dent in the illegal-drug profits of transnational criminal organizations, estimated at $90 billion a year according to SOUTHCOM.
In written testimony before the asset increase took effect, SOUTHCOM commander Admiral Craig Faller said the U.S. "only enabled the successful interdiction of about 9 percent of known drug movement" recently in Latin America and the Caribbean.
VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.