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Marco Rubio, Trump’s Shadow Secretary of State

How the senator from Florida went from being “Liddle Marco” to dictating U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It was not so long ago that Donald Trump and Marco Rubio were bitter enemies. During the 2016 primary, Rubio called Trump a “con man” and suggested that he had wet his pants during a debate. In return, Trump dubbed the Florida senator “Liddle Marco,” questioned the Cuban-American’s citizenship, and mocked his 2013 response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he had to interrupt his televised speech to chug a very small bottle of water. “‘I need water. Help me,’” Trump croaked in a campaign speech mimicking Rubio, before calling him a “choke artist.”

Rubio is hardly the first Republican critic of Trump to do a grinning about-face once Trump secured the presidential nomination and went on to win the election. But more than most opportunists on Capitol Hill, Rubio has used the Trump presidency to elevate his stature and amass power. To an unprecedented degree for a lawmaker, he is directing the government’s approach to an entire region: Latin America. It’s a part of the world that has long been subject to the whims of U.S. foreign policy—now, those whims increasingly belong to one man.

Consider that, until recently, the Trump administration showed deep apathy toward Latin America. While Barack Obama and George W. Bush had each made a handful of trips to the region by this point in their first terms, Trump did not travel to Latin America until November, to the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. Last year, he canceled trips to Lima and Bogotá, and he has yet to visit Mexico, sending his daughter Ivanka Trump to the December inauguration of Mexico’s new president in his place. Eleven out of 28 diplomatic posts in Latin America and the Caribbean remain empty. An assistant secretary of state for Latin America was not finalized until October, nearly two years into Trump’s first term.

But indifference turned to enthusiasm on January 23, when in a rebuke to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Trump recognized a 35-year-old right-wing upstart named Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader, a move that The Wall Street Journal described as the “first shot in [a] plan to reshape Latin America.” The force behind the Trump administration’s move was Rubio. In the absence of a clear policy for the region, The New York Times has called Rubio “a virtual secretary of state for Latin America.” On Cuba policy, to name one egregious example, Trump reportedly has offered his National Security Council little guidance but to “make Rubio happy.”

The son of Cuban émigrés who cemented his personal and political identity around antagonism toward the Castros, Rubio has hounded Trump to take a hardline stance against the so-called “troika of tyranny”: Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. This agenda includes ousting Maduro from the presidential palace in Caracas, lifting the Obama-era detente with Havana, and supporting the popular movement against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his leftist Sandinista Party in Managua.

But his agenda doesn’t stop there. Recent moves suggest that Rubio has his eyes on the total reversal of the so-called Pink Tide of left-leaning governments that dominated Latin American politics in the early 2000s. And he’s just getting started.

For Trump, pleasing Rubio and his Miami base—a stronghold of conservative Latino voters—is key to a 2020 victory in the battleground state of Florida, where he beat Hillary Clinton by a mere 113,000 votes in 2016. Florida is home to some 1.2 million Cubans and 190,000 Venezuelans. “Trump doesn’t care about Latin America. It’s all about domestic politics,” said William LeoGrande, an expert in U.S.-Latin American relations at American University. “Trump thinks he won Florida because of the Cuban American vote. Rubio convinced him that that’s what made the big difference in Florida.”

Rubio’s influence over Latin American policy is highly unusual for a senator. While Cuban-American members of Congress have long held outsized clout when it comes to foreign policy toward Cuba, Rubio’s reach extends further afield, in particular to Venezuela, which has served as a close ally and economic lifeline to Cuba for decades. On January 22, Rubio—flanked by Florida Governor Rick Scott and Florida Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a fellow Cuban-American from Miami—went to the White House to call on Trump to support Juan Guaidó and the Venezuelan opposition. The next day the Florida politicians got their wish. The United States, followed by 20 other countries, recognized Guaidó as interim president.

“I can’t think of another moment when such a crucial aspect of foreign policy was outsourced to a senator on such a critical decision as to recognize a dissident as the president of a country,” said Greg Grandin, author of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and Rise of New Imperialism and a professor of history at New York University. “It’s pretty audacious and it’s pretty unusual.”

“All signs suggest that Rubio has assumed an increasingly prominent role in shaping conversations in and out of the White House about U.S. policy toward Latin America,” said Michael Bustamante, a professor of Latin American history at Florida International University in Miami. “The question that’s on everybody’s mind is whether Venezuela is the first step, and if they’ll move onto Cuba as the next target.”

From an early age, Rubio admired the politics of first-generation Cubans who crossed the Straits of Florida on shrimp fishing boats and wooden rafts in 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. He began his career working with staunchly pro-embargo politicians, like Cuban-born Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Miami. Because of his old-school conservative politics and boyish looks, some Spanish-language media outlets have described Rubio as un joven viejo—a young fogey. “Rubio is very much a product of West Miami politics, a small, mostly blue-collar, reliably Republican municipality in the greater Miami area,” said Ricardo Herrero, who directs Cuba Study Group, a pro-engagement organization of Cuban-American business leaders.

As a voting bloc, Cuban exiles in Miami have formed a near-unified stance against the Cuban government and in support for the embargo, in the hopes that it will one day bring down the Communist Party. “Miami has often been a place where those who find themselves in the crosshairs of left-leaning Latin American governments end up,” said Michael Bustamante, a professor of Cuban history at Florida International University in Miami. “There’s a long tradition in the Cuban exile community of seeing like-minded left-leaning governments in the hemisphere, particularly those that are closest to Havana, as enemies.”

While many second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans identify as Democrats and support an end to the embargo on Cuba, their parents, especially elites who lost property or had family members imprisoned during Cuban Revolution, remain steadfast in their hardline stance, which extends to Venezuela. “The triumph of the Castro Revolution in 1959 dispersed a lot of right-wing elements into the United States and injected the right with a new kind of constituency, Cuban émigrés,” said Grandin, the professor of Latin American history at NYU. Today 67 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami between ages 60 and 75 support the embargo, while only 35 percent of Cuban adults under age 40 do, according to the Florida International University’s 2018 Cuba Poll. “[West Miami] is one of the few pockets here where taking a hardline stand against Cuba still yields electoral rewards,” said Herrero. “And Venezuela is really an extension of the position on Cuba.”

Meanwhile, fifteen miles west of Miami, the affluent city of Doral, Florida—which some call “Doralzuela” for its growing population of Venezuelan exiles—is a hub of support for U.S.-backed regime change in Venezuela. In Doral, it’s common to see Venezuelan flags and bumper stickers with the message “Pray for Venezuela.” On February 1, Vice President Mike Pence, a close ally of Rubio’s, traveled to Doral to speak to Venezuelans about ending Maduro’s rule. “This is no time for dialogue,” said Pence to a cheering crowd of Venezuelan exiles at a church. “It is time to end the Maduro regime.”

Since August 2017, when news broke that a powerful lawyer in Caracas had plotted an assassination attempt on Rubio, the Florida senator says he has talked to Trump at least once a month about Venezuela. He has reminded him of the payoffs in Florida in 2020 for supporting regime change: “There could be electoral rewards,” Rubio recently told the Associated Press.

“[Rubio] has been relentless ... working hard to earn the president’s trust in this policy area,” former Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican, told The New York Times. “He owns it and it has clearly paid dividends for him.”

In order to win Florida in 2020 and by extension a second term in the White House, Trump must turn out Cuban and Venezuelan voters. In the 2018 midterms, only 31 percent of Latino voters in Miami cast ballots for Democratic candidates. Older Cuban-Americans tend to vote for politicians with the most conservative stances on relations with Cuba and Venezuela. “Foreign policy is domestic policy in South Florida,” Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who lives in south Florida, recently said.

Aside from short-term electoral gains, Trump himself appears to care little about what happens in Latin America. That is not the case for Rubio. After taking office in 2017, Trump payed lip service to Cuban-American voters by taking rhetorical rather than substantive steps to roll back relations with Cuba. U.S. businesses with investments in Cuba wanted to keep the relationship open, and Trump understood this. (At one point, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts scouted land in Havana.) But Rubio was not satisfied. In recent months, he has pressured the White House to put Cuba back on an international terrorism list, impose sanctions on Cuban officials, and end U.S. travel and academic exchanges to the island. Last year, at Rubio’s urging, the United States withdrew most of its diplomats from Cuba. The real feather in his cap will be if the Maduro government falls in Venezuela, which could have devastating effects on Cuba, since it relies on subsidized oil from Venezuela.

With Trump bowing to his wishes, Rubio has also started exerting his influence on other Pink Tide countries. Starting in 1999 with Hugo Chavez’s ascent to power in Venezuela, there was a leftward turn in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Honduras, and Ecuador. Until a right-wing lurch in the mid-2010s, these governments rode a commodities boom, increasing public welfare spending and lowering Latin America’s poverty rate from 45 to 25 percent between 2000 and 2014.

In 2019 only a few leftist governments remain. Rubio’s agenda has disquieting parallels to the Cold War years when the United States supported the removal of governments in eight countries across the region, ushering in a wave of dictators in their stead. Despite Rubio’s opposition to socialist governments on the grounds of human rights violations, he has praised authoritarian right-wing leaders, such as Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, a military strongman who has extolled dictatorship, joked about raping women and killing civilians, and called for the wide-scale deforestation of the Amazon. In January Rubio penned an op-ed for with the headline “U.S. Should Go Big on Brazil.”

Over the past year, Rubio has directed U.S. policy on a range of smaller issues affecting the region. In May, in his role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he suspended funding for Guatemala’s anti-corruption commission, CICIG, which was investigating right-wing President Jimmy Morales, his sons, and his brother on accounts of fraud and corruption. In October, he handpicked Mauricio Claver-Carone, a prominent contributor at the conservative blog Capitol Hill Cubans and a pro-embargo lobbyist, to lead the department of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. In August, he boasted on Twitter about drafting legislation to cut off aid to El Salvador for moving its embassy from Taiwan to China. On February 6, Foreign Policy reported that Rubio convinced the Trump administration to abandon its nomination of career diplomat Francisco “Paco” Palmieri as ambassador to Honduras, insisting that his politics were not hardline enough. On February 8, Rubio condemned Mexico for continuing to recognize Maduro as president of Venezuela.

These activities paint a picture of Rubio’s vision for Latin America—a return to Cold War policy. There’s a long history of the U.S. meddling in Latin American affairs to assert U.S. hegemony, and it tells us that what comes next could be bloody and ultimately transformational for the region. How far Rubio is able to push his agenda hinges, most pressingly, on his success in Venezuela.