First came meetings with allies, including Britain’s foreign secretary and the European Union’s foreign policy chief. Then came the made-for-TV moment with President Trump introducing Juan Guaido as the “true and legitimate president of Venezuela” during his State of the Union address.
It was part of a policy rollout that included an Oval Office meeting, in which Guaido was told he could expect more U.S. pressure within 30 days to remove President Nicolas Maduro. It ended with sanctions being imposed on the state airline a couple of days later.
It was an unusual message in both style and substance. For a White House where policy announcements frequently arrive in the form of a tweet, the push came in a surprisingly conventional manner. It signaled a willingness to topple a foreign dictator despite Trump’s opposition to deeper overseas commitments.
“He’s no fan of foreign deployments,” said a senior administration official. “It’s absolutely clear that he has a very different view of our hemisphere.”
So, although his administration is inching toward a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan and has built close relationships with regimes with problematic human rights records or expansionist intent (think Saudi Arabia or Vladimir Putin’s Russia), the calculus changes nearer to home.
Venezuela has been wracked by economic and political crises that forced 5 million people to flee. Guaido rose to prominence last year as head of the country’s congress, leading demonstrations and claiming presidential powers because Maduro had retained power in fraudulent elections.
He has won the backing of more than 50 nations, including the United States. The reasoning was spelled out during the Guaido visit by a senior administration official who appealed to a 19th-century view of the world.
“I would say the Trump Doctrine is a rebirth of the Monroe Doctrine, in the sense of sending a signal to external … to extracontinental actors that the United States will remain, and should remain, the partner of choice in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.
As such, Trump’s position is a modern iteration of the idea, named for President James Monroe, that the New World and the Old World should stay out of each other’s lanes: America is for the Americans. Back then, it was taken as an assertion of Washington’s right to apply gunboat diplomacy; today, it is frequently accompanied by quiet assurances that “all options are on the table.”
And where once it was intended as a warning to France, Spain, and Britain to stay out of the region, today it is a new generation of powers that stand accused of bringing trouble to the neighborhood.
“We believe that we share principles and values with our neighbors in our neighborhood,” said the official. “And these extracontinental actors, whether it’s the Russians, the Chinese, and through their proxies in Cuba and others, are subverting those values and those principles.”
Simple proximity is a reason to treat Maduro differently to Kim Jong Un or Bashar Assad, runs the argument. Which is how it was that Trump welcomed Guaido to the State of the Union and sent him home with a message that people in the U.S. were united behind him.
“Socialism destroys nations,” he said. “But always remember: Freedom unifies the soul.”
Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, said it was right that the White House was focused on the most significant humanitarian emergency in the hemisphere. But he added that such Cold War rhetoric risked allowing Maduro to dismiss opponents as Washington stooges.
The messages revealed an ulterior motive.
“I think there’s a real danger that the closer we get to elections, the less Venezuela policy has anything to do with the facts on the ground and more will be related to the Trump campaign in Florida,” he said.
There are an estimated 200,000 Venezuelan voters in Florida, enough to decide the fate of the state in the presidential election. Add in the million voters of Cuban origin, some of whom have swung back behind the Republican Party because of Trump’s tougher line on Havana, and the anti-socialist rhetoric makes sense.
Either way, officials say there will be a further toughening in the month ahead of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela.
“It’s always close to our heart,” said Trump as he welcomed the president of Ecuador to the White House.