Joe Biden was winding down a rambling response to a question about the legacy of slavery in America in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate when he brought up his record on Venezuela and the question of immigration from the troubled country.
Brushing off a moderator who was trying to cut him off, the former vice president talked about his personal experience dealing with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.
“By the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela,” Biden said. “I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro.“
Biden’s remark drew a swift response from the Trump campaign, with the campaign “war room” Twitter account tweeting a pair of photos from January 2015 showing Biden and Maduro smiling at each other during former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s swearing-in ceremony in Brazil. The photos were handouts from Venezuela’s presidential office.
“Joe Biden just claimed he ‘confronted’ Maduro,” the account tweeted. “This ... doesn’t look like a confrontation.”
The immediate response from the Trump campaign highlights a potential general election issue in Florida, home to the country’s largest Venezuelan communities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and a battleground state in 2020. Trump, despite refusing so far to grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States, did choose to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president in January and has repeatedly brought up the need for Maduro to go.
And a bit more information about the context of the photos emerged late Thursday. A third person who appears in one of the photos with Biden and Maduro, standing right between them, said the former vice president’s apparent laughter was because Maduro had asked him to raise the price of oil.
“Hey Trump War Room, I’m the bald guy in that picture,” tweeted Juan S. Gonzalez, who worked as Biden’s Western Hemisphere adviser from 2013 to 2015. “He [Biden] laughed when Maduro asked him to raise the price of oil (market didn’t work that way) and that if he wanted to talk he first needed to release political prisoners and negotiate in earnest.”
Biden’s campaign said he “was among the first Democratic foreign policy voices to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and to call for Maduro to resign.”
“The Trump Administration appears more interested in using the Venezuelan crisis to rally domestic political support than in seeking practical ways to effect democratic change in Venezuela,” Biden said in a foreign policy statement made to the Council on Foreign Relations in August.
Eric Farnsworth, a former official in the Clinton White House and in the State Department who is now a vice president of the Council of the Americas, said Biden invoked his conversations with Maduro to emphasize how his foreign policy experience is different from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was also asked on Thursday about his refusal to call Maduro a dictator.
“This is clearly a differentiator to position Bernie Sanders as out of touch and more in tune with an ideology than a foreign policy approach,” Farnsworth said. “Biden is saying ‘Maduro’s a bad dude. I know him, I’ve negotiated with him. This is a messy situation.’ It plays into this narrative that Sanders is too far to the left and too far out there.”
Univision anchor Jorge Ramos brought up the topic of Venezuela for the first time in the three Democratic debates when he posed a question to Sanders Thursday: “You admit that Venezuela does not have free elections, but still you refuse to call Nicolás Maduro a dictator — a dictator. Can you explain why? And what are the main differences between your kind of socialism and the one being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua?”
Sanders called Maduro a “vicicious tyrant” and said there should be “international and regional cooperation for free elections in Venezuela so that the people of that country can make — can create their own future.”
Sanders also said comparing two of his socialist ideas — Medicare for all and free college — to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is unfair.
“In terms of democratic socialism, to equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair,” Sanders said. “I’ll tell you what I believe in terms of democratic socialism. I agree with what goes on in Canada and in Scandinavia, guaranteeing healthcare to all people as a human right.”
Farnsworth said Biden’s remark that he confronted Maduro is open to interpretation.
“I don’t know whether it’s healthy to say [the Obama-Biden administration] confronted [Maduro] or not,” Farnsworth said. “Was it done effectively? Maduro’s still there so draw your own conclusions. Then again, what the Trump administration has done is working its way through the process and Maduro is still there.”
Mark Feierstein, the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2015 to 2017, said Biden’s work on Venezuela laid the ground for Guaidó’s constitutional legitimacy both domestically and internationally.
Feierstein said Biden generated support for international observer missions for the December 2015 Venezuela National Assembly election, an internationally respected result that gave the opposition control of Venezuela’s parliament for the first time since 1999. The Trump administration has cited the legitimacy of that election and the illegitimacy of subsequent elections as basis for Guaidó to be recognized as president in an interim capacity.
“The vice president played an important role in that,” Feierstein said.
Feierstein also said Biden knows Latin America better than any other Democrat running for president, arguing that he successfully worked with both parties in Congress to get more funds for Latin America to promote democracy.
“No one on the stage last night has the international experience Joe Biden has,” Feierstein said. “He knows the leaders in the region. He’s met with them many times.”
And Farnsworth said the images that give the Trump campaign ammunition to attack Biden also show his longstanding foreign policy work.
“If you’re the vice president of the United States, you’re going to be meeting with a lot of people and there’s going to be a lot of pictures floating around. That doesn’t mean you agree with them,” Farnsworth said.
Miami Herald reporter David Smiley contributed to this report.