(McClatchy) Florida lawmakers went into damage control mode after President Donald Trump attacked Colombian President Ivan Duque during an off-the-cuff comment about closing the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday.
Trump said Duque, the U.S.’s most important ally in the ongoing effort to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, “has done nothing for us” in combating the flow of illicit drugs.
The comments, which were not shared with members of Congress in advance, prompted at least four lawmakers, Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio along with Democratic Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Debbie Wasserman Schultz to speak with Duque directly.
“I think that the president should extend an apology to the President of Colombia,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Not only should we be supporting their efforts but there’s a lot more the U.S. can do to support Ivan Duque in his fight against drugs.”
“I’ll tell you something, Colombia, you have your new president of Colombia,” Trump said during a visit to tout repairs on Lake Okeechobee’s dike. “Really good guy, I’ve met him — we had him at the White House. He said how he’s going to stop drugs. More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was president, so he has done nothing for us.”
Colombia has taken in at least 1.5 million Venezuelan refugees who fled Maduro’s regime, and the country is a key staging area for humanitarian aid waiting to enter the country. Maduro barricaded key choke points at the Venezuela-Colombia border, and Venezuelans seeking medical care or necessities across the border are forced to cross the Táchira River.
Rubio, chair of the Senate subcommittee responsible for Latin American affairs, said the president is frustrated about the ongoing flow of illicit drugs from Colombia, but he disagrees with Trump.
“I don’t share the assessment that he’s done nothing,” Rubio said. “My sense is he’s been there seven months and the things he’s dealing with have been in place for a long time. But I share the president’s frustration at not having made more progress and I look forward to ways to be helpful to Colombia and addressing it. I think they are a willing partner.”
Rubio said Colombia won’t look at changing its relationship with the U.S. on Venezuela over Trump’s comment, as they share a common goal of supporting Juan Guaidó, the leader of the national assembly, as he attempts to facilitate free and fair elections in Venezuela.
“I think the Colombian-U.S. partnership is strong enough to withstand one statement by the president,” Rubio said. “I share the president’s frustration but at the same time I think Colombia’s a willing partner that needs help and more capability.”
Scott also expressed disagreement with Trump on Duque’s efforts to combat drug trafficking and corruption.
“He’s taking strong action to address the drug problem left after eight years of his predecessor’s policies,” tweeted Scott, who attended Duque’s inauguration last year. “He’s been a strong ally of the U.S. in our fight to end narco-trafficking and support freedom and democracy in Venezuela. I’ll be traveling to Colombia in a few weeks to meet with President Duque and get an update on his efforts.”
Florida has the largest contingent of Colombians and Venezuelans in the United States, and most are concentrated in Miami-Dade County.
“I got 5,000 emails about it. It was too weird for me,” Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala said. “Ivan Duque is the best friend we have in Latin America. Colombia is a wonderful democracy that’s struggling now. They’ve got 1.5 million Venezuelan refugees. We have to do everything we can to support them. If I’m worried about anything I’m worried about Colombia.”
Colombia was the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in Latin America in 2017, and dozens of politicians have traveled to Colombia in recent months to demonstrate support for their efforts on Venezuela. As Trump made his comments about Duque on Friday, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee visited the border and met with Duque.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Rubio and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, introduced a bill on Wednesday that provides $400 million in aid to help alleviate Venezuelan’s humanitarian crisis and requires the State Department to coordinate international sanctions on Venezuela.
Wasserman Schultz said the president’s comment hurts Colombia’s fight against narco-trafficking, along with joint efforts on Venezuela.
“President Trump’s penchant for peddling falsehoods is undercutting the significant strides made in Colombia’s battle against narco-trafficking, which President Ivan Duque has made despite great personal and political risk,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “Trump’s very public struggle with reality will damage a key ally in the global struggle to return democracy to Venezuela, in which Colombia has provided refuge to nearly 1.5 million of its starving and impoverished citizens fleeing the despotic Maduro regime.”
Mucarsel-Powell said Trump’s trashing of allies like Duque, while praising dictators like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, gives adversaries like Russia and China an opening to builder stronger ties with Latin America.
“Colombia is doing everything in their power to welcome these refugees,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “When you hear the president of the United States criticize their efforts it also sends the wrong message to the people that live in Latin America. What happens is when they start hearing the president stand against the nations in Latin America it will open the door for some of our strongest enemies like Russia to penetrate that region.”
And as the U.S. readies more humanitarian aid in Curacao and Colombia ahead of planned protests in Venezuela on April 6, Mucarsel-Powell said Trump’s comments on a decades-long drug fight are more evidence that he has no interest in a traditional diplomatic approach.
“It clearly shows you that he does not understand foreign policy, he doesn’t understand diplomacy. He doesn’t understand what the president of Colombia is doing right now to fight the war on drugs.”