Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has drawn fire at home for mixing politics with official State Department business, whether addressing the Republican National Convention from Israel or using the taxpayer dime to give policy speeches in battleground states.
Now, he’s exporting that controversy abroad, causing uproar overseas, where foreign officials have accused him of trying to drag their governments into the election battle between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
The problem was clearly on display this week during Pompeo’s visit to the Vatican, where Pope Francis refused to meet with the secretary during his visit, with Vatican officials accusing the secretary of state of trying to drag the Holy See into the 2020 U.S. election by criticizing its relations with China.
Rome isn’t the only place reeling from Pompeo’s unprecedented beach of the State Department tradition of steering well clear of politics. In Brazil, lawmakers are still trying to come to grips with the damage done by Pompeo’s September visit, ostensibly meant to shore up support for a common front against Venezuela but ultimately about Pompeo’s efforts to boost Trump’s standing with Latino voters in Florida and other battleground states.
While in the Brazilian city of Boa Vista on Sept. 18—home to 85,000 Venezuelans who have fled the regime of Nicolás Maduro—Pompeo railed against the embattled Venezuelan leader, reiterating U.S. hopes to see Maduro removed from power in favor of a democratic transition. Accompanied by his Brazilian counterpart, Pompeo said, “One day we may have Venezuela again.”
He described Maduro’s government as a cynical regime that is “simply a wealth extraction scheme for personal benefit with a project to continue to simply destroy that country.”
The speech didn’t stray from the secretary’s usual talking points on Venezuela, after years of maximum pressure and minimal results, but some Brazilian lawmakers and former top diplomats bristled at the hawkish overtones, accusing the secretary of state of fueling new tensions between Brazil and Venezuela and using the trip to garner more support among Latin American diasporas in the swing state of Florida.
In the aftermath of the visit, Brazilian House Speaker Rodrigo Maia released a letter noting that Brazil’s decision to host Pompeo less than 50 days before the U.S. presidential election “does not go along with good international diplomacy practice and defies the traditions of autonomy and pride in our foreign and defense policies.”
A group of former senior Brazilian foreign-policy officials wrote an open letter condemning the motives behind Pompeo’s visit and showing support for Maia, the center-right lawmaker who has become one of the leading voices of the opposition in Brazil against President Jair Bolsonaro. The letter, signed by one former president, five former foreign affairs ministers, a former ambassador to Washington, and a former strategic affairs official, condemned Pompeo for his hawkish speech that they said could exacerbate tensions between Brazil and Venezuela.
“I’m the first one to criticize the situation in Venezuela,” said Rubens Ricupero, a signatory who served as the Brazilian ambassador to the United States. “But we took it as an affront that the secretary of state came and used Brazil as if it were [a no-man’s] land to harass a neighboring country with which we never had any kind of conflict.”
One day after the letter was published, the Brazilian Senate Foreign Relations Commission called on the foreign affairs minister to testify on the motives behind Pompeo’s visit, halting the confirmation of more than 30 diplomats until the minister addressed the matter.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment on the matter. Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, shot back at Maia in a statement, saying that “Brazil’s diplomatic tradition does not include ignoring our neighbors.” When it comes to Venezuela, he said, indifference to the fate of the country would be “immoral and would put at risk the security of Brazilian citizens.”
Pompeo’s visit to Brazil, like his trip to Rome, was representative of much of his recent diplomacy: a nominal effort to line up U.S. allies to support U.S. foreign-policy goals while preaching to the choir back home.
“Pompeo used Brazilian soil as a campaign rally to appeal to Latinos in Florida,” said Hussein Kalout, another signatory of the letter who served as secretary of strategic affairs during the previous administration.
In Florida, one of the most important battleground states in the 2020 election, the number of Hispanics who are eligible to vote has nearly doubled since 2000—making up one-fifth of all eligible voters in 2018. Cuban Americans, by far the largest Hispanic group in South Florida, overwhelmingly prefer Trump over Biden, a recent poll showed. The same holds true among Venezuelan Americans.
With Biden neck and neck in Florida overall, Trump himself paid a visit to Miami on Friday. Before heading to the state, the president spoke at a White House event honoring veterans of the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs operation meant to oust Fidel Castro from Cuba. He boasted that his popularity had “gone through the roof with the poll numbers from Hispanics,” though recent polls show Trump significantly lagging behind Biden among Latino voters more broadly.
Pompeo’s tough rhetoric on Maduro “communicates to both the Hispanic community in Florida but also to international and regional stakeholders,” said Diego Area, the associate director for Venezuela at the Atlantic Council. After Brazil, Pompeo and his ever present hard-line discourse made a stop in Colombia, which has welcomed more than one-third of all Venezuelan migrants and which has also gotten on board with the tougher U.S. line against Venezuela.
The Trump administration has nothing to show yet for almost four years of pressure on the Maduro regime, despite an escalating series of sanctions and attempts to rally regional allies to its side. But Area said he expects to see more tough—and very targeted—rhetoric in the weeks to come.
“I don’t think this is the last political act we’re gonna be seeing from Trump’s government. We’re going to see this increasingly happening as we get near the election,” Area said.