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Ahead of elections in heavily-Latino Miami, Bolton talks tough against Cuba, Venezuela

Bolton's stern words are widely seen as an attempt to mobilize conservative Latino voters in Florida, where elections are typically won by thin margins.
Image: US National Security Adviser John Bolton delivers remarks on the Trump Administration's policies in Latin America
US National Security Adviser John Bolton delivered remarks on the Trump Administration's policies in Latin America at Miami Dade College's National Historic Landmark Freedom Tower in Miami, Florida, USA, 1 November 2018. Bolton announced a a tougher Trump administration stance towards Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba.CRISTOBAL HERRERA / EPA

MIAMI — National Security Adviser John Bolton announced, during a harsh speech in Miami Thursday, new sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, while promising additional ones against Nicaragua, which some have described as an effort to rally conservative Latino voters in one of the country’s largest swing states.

“This troika of tyranny, this triangle of terror stretching from Havana to Caracas to Managua, is the cause of immense human suffering,” he said. During his time at the State Department under George Bush, Bolton added Cuba to the countries that comprised the “beyond axis of evil.”

Bolton said the administration “will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores in this hemisphere.” He referred to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, as the “three stooges” of socialism and called them Larry, Curly, and Moe.

He announced President Donald Trump signed a new executive order that will prohibit U.S. citizens from involvement in the gold export trade from Venezuela.

The U.S. government has already sanctioned dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, in an attempt to pressure the South American country to return to democracy. Venezuela has been plagued with food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation, and violent crime, driving almost 2 million Venezuelans out of their country since 2015.

Although Bolton did not announce any sweeping measures, his stern words are widely seen as an attempt to mobilize conservative Latino voters in Florida, where elections are typically won by thin margins. The state has a number of tight congressional races, as well as a hotly contested senate and gubernatorial race.

Bolton blamed Cuba for enabling Maduro’s government and he urged leaders of the region to “let the Cuban regime know that it will be held responsible for continued oppression in Venezuela.”

He announced the State Department added over two-dozen entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military and intelligence services to a restricted list prohibited to Americans. It’s part of the Trump administration’s roll back of former President Barack Obama’s policy of détente.

During the speech, Bolton sent a strong message to Ortega of Nicaragua, where 300 people have been killed in recent months during protests calling for the leader’s ouster.

“Free, fair, and early elections must be held in Nicaragua, and democracy must be restored to the Nicaraguan people,” he said. “Until then, the Nicaraguan regime, like Venezuela and Cuba, will feel the full weight of America’s robust sanctions regime.”

Bolton also praised Brazil’s recently elected far-right, nationalist president Jair Bolsonaro, calling him a “like-minded” partner. He said Bolsonaro, who has often been dubbed the "Tropical Trump" but who has drawn controversy over homophobic and racist comments, could be a partner in fighting against leftist leaders.

With the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive stance on immigration, Bolton, ironically, spoke from Miami’s Freedom Tower, known as the “Ellis Island of the South.” It was once a reception center for thousands of Cuban refugees in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The largest communities of Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan exiles are in South Florida. The situation back home is a key issue for some of them when voting.

Many have advocated for stronger positions against the leaders of their counties, and Bolton's message could be well received just five days before the mid-term elections.

“I am certain that most refugees from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua welcomed the comments by Bolton,” said Al Cardenas, former Chairman of the Florida Republican Party and former head of the American Conservative Union.

“It was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that U.S. senior officials make similar remarks just prior to an election,” he said.

Maintaining a tough stance against these countries is not just a Republican issue, though.

Democratic congressional candidates in South Florida, like Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, have taken a hard position on Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, as they told NBC News in recent interviews.

The Cuban-American electorate has diversified ideologically in the last few years, but Cuban-Americans are still strong GOP supporters, according to a recent Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy survey conducted for Telemundo.

Historically, Nicaraguans in South Florida have identified with the Republican Party since the 1980s when the Ronald Reagan administration supported the Contras against the Sandinistas, according to Florida International University professor Eduardo Gamarra.

Venezuelans are more complex, but they have warmed up to Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Vice President Mike Pence and their hard line against Maduro.

But Gamarra warned, Republicans have turned the elections into a "communism versus capitalism" campaign. “So many Republicans have resuscitated the cold war. It makes people, like Nicaraguans, more likely to vote Republican when they are putting it in those dichotomous terms,” Gamarra said.

Referring to the policies outlined by Bolton, Cardenas said, “more often than not, it energizes the base. Will the remarks lead to regime changes? I hope so. But that’s hard to fathom.”