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Trump vilified socialism in his State of the Union, using Venezuela as his foil

Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s opposition leader, attended the speech as Trump’s guest.

Juan Guaidó waves as he is acknowledged by President Trump during his State of the Union address on February 4, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó appeared as a guest at the State of the Union on Tuesday, with President Donald Trump touting him as the “true and legitimate president of Venezuela.”

Trump’s move was likely intended to boost Guaidó on the international stage, as the Venezuelan politician’s attempts to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power have continued to flounder.

Last January, Guaidó declared himself the rightful leader of Venezuela, and the United States and many other Western allies, including Canada and the European Union, endorsed him. But after a failed coup in April, declining support among Venezuelans, and reports of corruption scandals within the opposition he leads, US support for his efforts has waned.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s political and economic crises persist, and have morphed into a humanitarian catastrophe as millions have fled to neighboring countries. It is on the verge of becoming the world’s largest refugee crisis, surpassing Syria.

Guaidó, though, is trying to reinvigorate support for his campaign against Maduro, and just embarked on a world tour to boost those alliances. He’s reportedly been eager to get much-needed facetime with Trump — and, in the end, managed to snag a State of the Union invite instead. On Wednesday, the White House announced that the president would also meet with Guaidó.

Guaidó was greeted with enthusiastic applause during the State of the Union, but this renewed attention by Trump, so far, looks unlikely to alter the political stalemate in Venezuela.

Juan Guaidó pumps his fist as he is acknowledged during the State of the Union address.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

But it certainly gave Trump an opportunity to boast about his foreign policy, and to once again use Venezuela’s crisis to decry the dangers of socialism. It’s a tactic he’s used before, in an attempt to denigrate his 2020 Democratic opponents.

“As we restore American leadership throughout the world, we are once again standing up for freedom in our hemisphere,” Trump boasted, citing the administration’s policies against Cuba (reversing Obama-era opening), Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

On Venezuela, Trump said that Maduro is “an illegitimate ruler, a tyrant who brutalizes his people. But Maduro’s grip of tyranny will be smashed and broken.”

Guaidó, Trump said, was the man who would do so. “Mr. President, please take this message back to your homeland,” Trump told Guaidó as he stood in the gallery. “Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom! Socialism destroys nations. But always remember, freedom unifies the soul.”

Trump has repeatedly used Maduro has a foil to rail against socialism, in an attempt, as Vox’s Alex Ward put it, “to scare Republican voters in Florida and elsewhere that the Democrats are a bunch of socialists that could soon turn American into a Venezuela-like hellscape.”

Trump wasn’t that explicit in his State of the Union, but the subtext was there. And though he painted Guaidó as the antidote, he did forget to mention that Guaidó is himself a socialist and his leadership of Venezuela has been backed by the Council of the Socialist International. They, too, have rejected Maduro.

The United States has imposed tough sanctions on Maduro and his allies; so far, though, Maduro remains entrenched. And one area the United States could help Venezuelans in — as Trump put it, “their righteous struggle for freedom!” — would be to help the thousands of Venezuelans who are fleeing the precarious conditions in the country.

Lawmakers, including prominent Republicans, have called on the Trump administration to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans fleeing Maduro’s regime. So far, the Trump administration hasn’t taken action.

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