He may trail Donald Trump in the polls, but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis remains a strong contender for the Republican Presidential nomination.
DeSantis’ hopes for the top job rest on two foundations: his iron grip on Floridian politics and the simple fact that he isn’t Trump.
In last November’s US midterms, the sitting Governor stormed to re-election winning nearly 60% of the vote – the largest margin of victory in the state since 1982.
DeSantis’ personal success came as his party faltered on the national stage, winning the House by a tiny margin and watching on as the Democrats expanded their Senate majority.
The commentariat, not unreasonably, pointed to the electoral failure of a number of Trump-backed candidates – the dead hand of the former-President seeming to seal their fate, rather than sweeping them to victory.
Cemented in Florida, DeSantis has used the last few months to make interventions on a number of international issues, keen to develop his profile as a statesman.
Criticism of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy and vocal support for Israel and its embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu serve as a clarion call to the Governor’s right-wing base. He then underlined Florida’s global pulling power by hosting an investment summit for Japanese multinationals and policymakers in late-March.
Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are all on DeSantis’ campaign agenda, then, but one region is conspicuously absent given its prominence in Floridian politics since 2016.
That would be South America and more specifically Venezuela.
Florida is well known for its large and small ‘c’ conservative Latino population. Indeed, the GOP and DeSantis have turned a once purple state a strong shade of red by playing to the demographic’s staunchly anti-socialist convictions.
Venezuela, led by President Nicolas Maduro’s ‘Chavist’ administration, has served as a lightening rod for winning favour with Floridian Latinos.
Republicans have said (and continue to say) that under the Democrats, the US will be turned into a left-wing haven. Its businesses will soon be nationalised, taxes will surge, and equality of outcome is just around the corner.
The spectre of a red peril reached its apotheosis in 2020 as one of the Trump campaign’s only consistent talking points.
Trump lost on election night but improved on his 2016 margin of victory in Florida by 2.2%, no doubt helped by the popular DeSantis’ ringing endorsement.
As mentioned, DeSantis and the GOP cemented this position in 2022, providing a launchpad for his Presidential bid but also relegating Venezuela to a tertiary issue in the state’s politics.
Quite simply, Florida Republicans feel so confident for 2024 that they no longer need to hooter and holla about socialist Venezuela to corral their local base. ‘Culture war’ issues like bashing liberal Disney and Volodymyr Zelenskyy are better bets for capturing the all-important national conversation.
The Democrats have all but accepted that Florida is unwinnable in the short term. This political reality, alongside continued energy security concerns, help to explain the Biden administration’s renewed willingness to engage with Venezuela.
Indeed, US major Chevron was given a license to resume drilling Venezuelan oil in November of last year and energy experts have urged Biden to continue his rapprochement with the Maduro administration to release the pressure on European consumers.
That said, the Democrats’ shifting position on Venezuela and the GOP’s growing disinterest in the country will certainly be to the chagrin of Florida’s small cadre of Venezuelan elites.
Most wealthy Venezuelans jumped ship to escape Hugo Chavez’s socialist reforms (1999-2013) or eventually lost patience in the face of growing instability under the sanction-embattled Maduro (2013-present).
Anti-Chavismo to their core but detached from the grim economic reality of sanctions for their compatriots back home, Florida’s Venezuelan elite has been vocal in its support for Maduro’s continued isolation.
Juan Guaido, Venezeula’s ‘interim President’ from 2019 to 2023, spent much of his time trying to secure backers for his platform in the US alongside his mentor Leopoldo López.
Florida was an obvious target for lobbying and both DeSantis and Trump recognised Guaido’s shadow presidency in 2019. While they and wealthy expats flocked to Guaido’s cause, support in Venezuela itself failed to materialise and the country’s more moderate opposition figures have now moved on.
The Biden administration has also changed course and opened itself to engagement with the Maduro administration, motivated no doubt by Venezuela’s world-beating oil and gas reserves but also by the increasingly dire humanitarian situation.
Somewhat paradoxically, hawkish Florida stands to benefit from a rapprochement.
The state’s Gulf Coast refineries will be able to purchase and process Venezuelan crude oil once again, while an improvement in Venezuela’s economic position would stem the flow of migrants heading to the southern border.
Regardless, the Republicans’ eventual Presidential nominee – predicted to be Trump but possibly DeSantis – may resuscitate Venezuela as a political issue in an attempt to foreshadow ‘four more years’ under the ‘socialist’ President Biden.
More likely is that the GOP’s grip on Florida gives Biden the political space to move ahead with unfreezing US relations with the Maduro administration.
Inflation-ridden Europe – not to mention the Venezuelans in Venezuela – will certainly be hoping so.