When President Donald Trump took office, he passed down one key instruction on how to handle Latin America: Make Marco Rubio happy.
Rubio, a Florida Republican and son of Cuban immigrants, had already built his political brand around vocal criticism of the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, and to what he viewed as the Democrats’ policy of appeasement in the region.
Trump didn’t have much to say about Latin America, but he knew two things: He wanted to keep immigrants and asylum-seekers out of the United States, and he had to win Florida in 2020. And he viewed staying in the good graces of Rubio, whose hardline stances have made him popular among Cuban and Venezuelan exiles and their descendants in and around Miami, as key to the latter.
Nearly four years later, Rubio’s influence goes well beyond his formal job title of Florida senator. Empowered by Trump, he’s now widely known in Washington — and in Latin American capitals from Buenos Aires to Havana — as a major force behind the president’s policies in the region.
Rubio has effectively become secretary of State for Latin America, according to interviews with more than a dozen former White House and State Department officials and current Republican lawmakers, aides and analysts. The administration has learned to seek his blessing on key hires related to the region, and the president routinely solicits his input on new policy initiatives.
Rubio rejects labels like “virtual secretary of State for Latin America,” an appellation bestowed on him last year by the New York Times. “That implies we don’t have a secretary of State and that’s not accurate,” he told POLITICO in an interview. “If people mean it as a compliment, I don’t mean to turn them off on it. But it’s not like the people I’m working with or providing advice to need to be convinced to do these things.” He describes his own role in humbler terms — to offer advice and “nudge us in one direction or another” in hiring and policy decisions, as he put it.
But with influence has come criticism. Rubio has become too powerful, his critics say — ruthless in his efforts to control messaging and push out anyone with a role in Latin America policy who could be perceived as soft on Cuba or Venezuela, while too narrow in his focus on only a few countries in a region of more than 650 million people.
Rubio’s influence has “distorted policy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focused on Latin America, who criticized top officials’ “singular focus” on Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. “But this obsession with the three dictatorships doesn’t mean you ignore everything else that is going on in the region,” he added.
Inside the administration, officials face a continual dilemma over just how much deference to pay the Florida senator. “Rubio is either advantageous to you or an obstructor. Which do you choose?” said a former administration official focused on Latin America.
From the early days of the Trump administration, Rubio has had a direct line to the president when it comes to Cuba and Venezuela — and occasionally Nicaragua, two former administration officials said.
In February 2017, he organized a meeting between Trump and Lilian Tintori, wife of Venezuelan opposition politician and then-political prisoner Leopoldo López, at the White House. The president did not inform National Security Council aides of the meeting and they did not find out until after it took place, according to two former administration officials. Trump tweeted out a photo of the encounter, marking Rubio as a voice who could not be ignored.
“We knew early on that on Latin America policy Trump wasn’t taking cues from career officials. He was taking cues from harder-line Cuba folks in Miami,” a former State official said.
During peak times in Trump’s crackdown on Cuba and Venezuela’s governments, Rubio was briefed by the National Security Council at least once a week. And State officials have long been advised — including under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — to always be quick in responding to inquiries from the Florida senator’s office.
“You’d never want Marco Rubio to find out like everyone else” about a policy rollout, a former administration official said.
In phone calls, Trump has often solicited Rubio’s views on National Security Council proposals related to Latin America, former administration officials said. On multiple occasions, Rubio came directly to NSC staffers with feedback on live policy options related to Cuba and Venezuela that they had not discussed with him or his staff directly. The president, they assumed, had shared the information with Rubio in their private conversations.
Rubio is also close with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, dating back to their days in Congress; Pompeo even endorsed Rubio during his run for president in 2016. The vice president has often heeded Rubio’s calls for certain action on Cuba and Venezuela. In 2018, at Rubio’s request, Pence used his speech at the Summit of the Americas in Peru to offer up the United States as the host country for the next one, which will take place in 2021, former administration officials said. (Pence’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the Summit request or their relationship.)
Rubio argues he’s simply providing guidance on issues the Trump administration already considers a priority, like increasing sanctions on Venezuelan officials and industries and rolling back Obama-era policy on Cuba.
“It’s not like the people I’m working with or providing advice to need to be convinced. Their instincts are there, their hearts are there and their minds are there,” Rubio said.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, another prominent Florida Republican voice on Latin America, gave Trump full credit for his administration’s work on Venezuela and Cuba. “It’s not either of us. It’s not the secretary of State. It’s him,” Diaz-Balart said. “Senator Rubio and I are very fortunate that the president listens to us and calls us in on these issues.”
But other Rubio allies say he held the administration to a hard line. “Rubio is seen in Cuba as the main person that opposes the Castro regime in the United States and the person that has the ear of the president,” said Tomás Regalado, a former mayor of Miami and former head of Radio and TV Marti, the U.S.-funded broadcast network aimed at countering Cuba’s state-run media. “If there was a moment when anybody in the administration said it’s time to give a second look to what we’re doing on Cuba, Rubio stopped that,” said Regalado, who was recommended by Rubio for the TV Marti post.
Some Latin America analysts say it’s natural administration officials would come to Rubio for guidance given that the Florida senator, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, is one of, if not the, lawmaker with the most knowledge on the region.
But they point out that Rubio rarely, if ever, talks about Latin American countries that aren’t Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua. For example, he has never met with Mexican Ambassador Martha Bárcena, the Mexican Embassy confirmed, despite Mexico being the U.S.’ southern neighbor and largest trading partner in 2019. In July, Rubio did not offer any kind of statement or tweet when Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador traveled to Washington — his first trip out of Mexico in years — to meet with Trump at the White House.
“He’s not making foreign policy. It’s Florida electoral politics, and yes, he’s successful in Florida. But frankly it’s a dereliction of his duty as chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee to ignore the majority of the region,” a conservative Latin America analyst said.
Rubio also made clear when López Obrador was elected in July 2018 that he had “serious philosophical differences” with the Mexican populist, but added that “Mexico is an important partner of the United States.” Last year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on U.S. policy in Mexico and Central America; Rubio did not attend.
Multiple people involved in U.S.-Mexico relations said they have not seen Rubio express an interest in the bilateral relationship, instead letting the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the president’s aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner lead on the issue.
Instead, Rubio has only gotten involved in U.S.-Mexico affairs when it relates to Florida, multiple aides and analysts said. Rubio and other Florida lawmakers have been pushing the Trump administration to address concerns from state growers that Mexico is harming them by selling seasonal produce to the U.S. at unfair prices. The administration is set to hold a virtual hearing with Florida producers next month.
A person close to Rubio pushed back: “The narrative is false.” Rubio has held a subcommittee hearing on the U.S.-Mexico relationship, worked closely with the Trump administration during negotiations for the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal and raised concerns over human rights, organized crimes and drug trafficking with the administration, the person said. The subcommittee hearing took place in March 2017, however, and several people involved in the USMCA negotiations said Rubio was rarely involved in the negotiations other than on the issue of seasonal produce.
Personnel is policy
To maneuver his allies into top positions, Rubio has pushed out officials and aides who did not share his views on Cuba and Venezuela.
In 2018, after a failed effort to install him at the State Department, he successfully placed his longtime friend Mauricio Claver-Carone into the White House as head of the Western Hemisphere Affairs at the NSC. Claver-Carone, who previously worked on Trump’s transition team and led a political action committee that worked to preserve the U.S. embargo on Cuba, was an outspoken opponent of the Obama administration’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.
“Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s ‘talking for the sake of talking’ is proving only to be a useful distraction in this country and the world that is allowing the Castro regime to strengthen its political and economic grip over the Cuban people and their future,” Claver-Carone wrote in a piece for HuffPost in 2016.
In June, Claver-Carone, who is considered by former administration officials, Rubio allies and Latin American analysts to have moved much decision-making power on Cuba and Venezuela policy from State to the NSC, was nominated to run the Inter-American Development Bank.
Rubio also recommended Carlos Trujillo, another Cuban American who was formerly an attorney in Miami, to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States in 2018, aides and Rubio allies said. Trujillo, who multiple Latin America analysts call “Little Marco,” is now on track to be confirmed as the assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere, the top Latin America position at the State Department.
In early 2019, Rubio demanded that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch replace Caleb McCarry, who had led Western Hemisphere affairs for the committee for six years, so he could put in his own former staffer for the role, three people familiar with the situation said.
The sources described how McCarry, who served as a Cuba transition coordinator under George W. Bush, had spent his time in the committee caught in Rubio’s crosshairs due to his role in helping carry out former chairman Sen. Bob Corker’s policies, which were often at odds with Rubio’s approach. Corker visited Cuba and had a more measured approach to sanctions.
One of the major tensions, the people familiar with McCarry’s departure said, stemmed from McCarry’s role in brokering the release of Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen who was held in a Venezuelan prison for nearly two years without trial. Corker, with the help of McCarry, met in person with Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s socialist leader, to make it happen.
McCarry now serves as a counselor to the CEO of the International Development Finance Corporation, a much lower profile job.
Rubio also pushed to ensure Francisco “Paco” Palmieri would not get confirmed for any position in the Trump administration, multiple people familiar said.
Palmieri served as acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the top State job on the region, for almost two years after being embraced by Tillerson when he took over the department in January 2017.
He soon found himself caught between the secretary of State and Rubio, who clashed at Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. A former State official said Tillerson used Palmieri as a “blocking agent” since Rubio wanted his own pick in that role — Claver-Carone.
Palmieri, given his decades of experience in the Foreign Service, was perceived by Rubio as a “deep stater,” according to aides and former officials. Rubio also faulted Palmieri for not doing enough to tackle the mysterious sonic attacks that made U.S. diplomats ill in Cuba, and shared all those concerns with Pompeo’s staff.
Palmieri was ultimately nominated to serve as ambassador to Honduras, but the nomination was tabled in 2019 by the Trump administration at Rubio’s request, multiple people familiar said. He is now a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.
And while Palmieri was in the acting role, Rubio could not get the State Department to support Claver-Carone for the permanent job, former officials said. The administration settled on Kimberly Breier, a longtime career official at State, as a compromise choice; she assumed the role in late 2018 with Kushner’s blessing, multiple people familiar with the situation said, and worked directly with Kushner on U.S.-Mexico issues.
But Rubio ultimately prevailed. Breier resigned 10 months into the job, clearing the way for Trujillo’s nomination.
At Trujillo’s confirmation hearing last month, Rubio praised him for working with allies at the OAS to coordinate sanctions against members of the Venezuelan regime.
“I know it took a lot of old-fashioned diplomatic work behind the scenes with our partner nations in the region. And I think, it’s in no small part, due to you,” Rubio said. “I’m excited and very supportive of your nomination.”
Rubio’s office does not deny the Florida senator’s involvement in pushing out officials to make room for his picks. “Senator Rubio believes personnel is policy and he’ll continue to use his role in the Senate to advance U.S. policy,” a spokesperson said.
But critics of his approach say he has far been more successful in bending the U.S government to his way of thinking than in effecting change in Cuba and Venezuela.
One person who seems to have grown skeptical of the strategy is Trump, who recently floated the idea of meeting with Maduro — only to swiftly walk it back after an outcry on the right.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela and a Rubio ally, defended the administration’s attempts to oust the regime in Caracas. “We have said from the beginning that we have one thing to discuss with Maduro, and that is the details of his departure,” Abrams said.
As for Cuba, where there are few signs that Trump’s return to pressure has yielded the desired result, Rubio asks for patience.
“I never told anyone that you would do this and within 12 days this all comes falling down,” Rubio said. “But there will come a moment, I can’t tell you when that day is, but it won’t be in 30 years… there will be a moment in which it will become apparent that Cuba needs to change direction.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this article.