NOEL KING, HOST:
For more than a year, the Trump administration has made clear that it wants Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, replaced by the opposition leader, Juan Guaido. But Maduro is still president. And then this week, President Trump invited Guaido to his State of the Union address. And in that address, Trump said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF 2020 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Please take this message back that all Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom. Thank you very much, Mr. President.
KING: Guaido was also at the White House yesterday. NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been covering this. Hey, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
KING: So why is the president focusing on Venezuela right now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, Venezuela - he wants to show that it is a priority even though it's not in the headlines. He wants to give Guaido a boost. But, look; there are also political motivations. Venezuela is a potent campaign issue. Venezuela - and this is very important to Venezuelans and Cuban expats, particularly in South Florida. And Florida, as we know, is a key swing state.
You know, a year ago, though, Guaido inspired these massive demonstrations. He led to all this hope that he could lead an uprising, but a lot of those hopes kind of dwindled a bit. So when Guaido stood up during the State of the Union address, it really sent a message. It was one of those rare moments during the State of the Union where both Republicans and Democrats stood and clapped.
KING: Which is certainly a symbolic moment, and that's important. But is there anything beyond symbolism here?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, there is a lot of accusations from current and former U.S. officials that President Trump was pulling away from Guaido. The White House says that's not true. A senior administration official told reporters that they have all these different ways still to increase the pressure on Maduro. The official said that Trump has authorized new measures, and they should be taken in the next 30 days.
But, you know, I talked to Fernando Cutz. He's a former White House official who helped draft the specific road map of economic sanctions for Maduro. He told me the toughest measures had already been taken.
FERNANDO CUTZ: I would say that, realistically speaking, when you're thinking about options that will make an actual impacts that aren't symbolic, the United States has used the vast majority of its options in the economic realm. Now, of course, you know, again, you could go into a military realm, but that is not something that I think is seriously being considered.
ORDOÑEZ: One thing that the White House is also not considering, and that's negotiating with Maduro himself.
KING: So if the U.S. has tried its toughest options, what then are its options? What's left?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's unclear how they are going to do much beyond taking symbolic steps. One option is sanctions against countries that still back Maduro. Here's what national security adviser Robert O'Brien told a gathering of diplomats on Wednesday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROBERT O'BRIEN: The reason that Venezuela does not have a democracy and is not free is because Cuba, Russia and China are propping up a dictator who does not have the support of his people, who is illegitimate and who is exercising tyranny over the people of Venezuela.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, he warned Russia and other supporters to, quote, "knock it off." And, you know, Guaido's still in Washington. He's going to be continuing to make the rounds, meeting with the USAID administrator and also congressional leaders.
KING: All of this does bring up a really interesting point, which is whether or not economic sanctions actually work and, in this case, whether economic sanctions could force Maduro to leave.
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Experts I've talked to say sanctions can be effective to push countries at changing behavior, but they're not as good about forcing countries to change their leadership. Historians point to Cuba and Iran, which, you know, those really haven't achieved their goal. And Maduro's already absorbed some of the biggest blows that the United States could deliver - an embargo on oil sales, tough banking restrictions. So there's a lot of questions still left about this strategy.
KING: And he's still there. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thank you.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
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