By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – There’s a new cartoon up on the wall in John Bolton’s West Wing office, one that depicts U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser shaking maracas and dreaming of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro behind bars in an orange jumpsuit.
Until now, the trophy wall has been dominated by mementos associated with Bolton’s signature foreign policy fight: Iran. One cartoon features an ayatollah hearing about Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
The new addition is a sign of how Bolton’s hawkish focus has zeroed in on a new target – getting Maduro to leave Venezuela. It’s a battle he has waged on Twitter, where his acid-tongued trolling of the socialist leader has made him one of the Trump administration’s fiercest voices on the issue.
Since January, Bolton has fired off more than 130 withering missives directed at Maduro, accounting for three quarters of all his Twitter activity in that time and more than a third of all his tweets since Trump named him national security adviser in March 2018.
A spokesman for Bolton declined comment on the strategy.
The United States has led an international effort to recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, considering Maduro’s 2018 re-election a sham. More than a month later, Maduro clings to power, with the support of his military.
Bolton, a veteran neoconservative who critics call a warmonger, has tweeted far more about Venezuela in his time as national security adviser than any other topic, including Iran (34 tweets) or the Middle East and Syria (29 tweets).
It was Bolton’s most viral Venezuela tweet that was the genesis for the cartoon from Miami newspaper Diario Las Americas that now graces his office.
“I wish Nicolas Maduro and his top advisors a long, quiet retirement, living on a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela,” Bolton said, a zing that has since been retweeted 19,000 times and liked 39,000 times.
The next day, Bolton talked about the tweet with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, and added a threat: “The sooner he takes advantage of that, the sooner he’s likely to have a nice, quiet retirement on a pretty beach, rather than being in some other beach area like Guantanamo,” Bolton said.
In Caracas, cartoonist Fernando Pinilla heard about Bolton’s warning and was inspired. “Guantanamero … Maduro Guantanamero …,” Bolton sings in the caricature – a play on both the well-known Cuban song, and the U.S. military detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.
“It was easy to imagine that it would be the soundtrack of that arrest, which is our dream,” said Pinilla, who said he was surprised and honoured when he learned from Reuters that his work was hanging on Bolton’s wall.
‘I DREAM OF BOLTON’
Bolton’s war of words has rankled his targets.
Earlier this month, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza held up his phone at a United Nations press conference, brandishing a Bolton tweet warning countries and companies against buying oil and gold from Maduro’s government.
“What he’s trying to do here is give orders,” Arreaza complained to reporters.
Arreaza follows Bolton on Twitter. Bolton does not follow him back.
“Bolton’s gangster-style language and threats are proof of the most sublime diplomatic practice. How regrettable that US foreign policy has fallen into the hands of such a gang,” Arreaza tweeted last week.
While Bolton has far fewer followers than Maduro – 543,000 to Maduro’s 3.5 million – Bolton has stronger stats on “engagement,” a measurement of how readers connect with a message, noted Matthias Luefkens, who produces an annual “Twiplomacy” study on how world leaders use Twitter.
“His language is very bold, very daring, direct. It’s not diplomatic language that he uses,” said Luefkens, who works for the public relations firm BCW Global in Geneva.
The strategy bypasses the time-sucking layers of approvals needed to release a traditional White House statement and also side-steps the media.
“It’s the Trump formula of avoiding the gatekeepers,” said Philip Seib, who writes about diplomacy and social media at the University of Southern California’s School for Communication and Journalism.
Bolton’s brash style won fans in Caracas among supporters of opposition leader Guaido, like Martha Anez. She gushed about the mustachioed Trump adviser as she welcomed her friends to a crochet circle in her home in a well-to-do district earlier this month.
“I dream of Bolton!” Anez quipped. “The first thing I do in the morning, even before my coffee, is check whether or not the gringos have said they will intervene. Here we need a square in honour of Bolton! Because he has helped us,” she said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; additional reporting by Sarah Marsh and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)