Venezuelans here fret over future of nation — and their own fates
The chaos in Venezuela is a major concern for tens of thousands of that country’s natives who live in Central Florida, as members of Congress from both parties push to provide protection to those fleeing the embattled nation.
William Diaz, a journalist and founder of Casa de Venezuela in Orlando, said Central Florida now has 140,000 Venezuelan residents, about 38,000 of which are U.S. citizens, a number that has only grown over the last year as the nation has spiraled into political and economic upheaval.
“And why are Venezuelans coming to Central Florida?” Diaz said. “They have cousins, brothers, a sister-in-law. … There’s a high level of education, and you see in Kissimmee when you talk to your Lyft driver, the person washing dishes, you find he’s a doctor. A dentist. An architect. An engineer.”
But proposals to allow Venezuelan refugees to stay in the U.S. by giving them Temporary Protected Status have been complicated by the Trump Administration’s stance against extending asylum protections. And attempts to recognize the opposition president to socialist strongman Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate government have been tied up by Democratic concerns about possible U.S. military intervention.
More than 40 countries have proclaimed their support for Juan Guaido as acting president in opposition to Maduro, who
declared himself the victor of a highly disputed May 2018 election in which rival candidates were banned from running or left the country.
The crisis coming to a head in the past few weeks is the culmination of years of economic downturns under Maduro and previous socialist president Hugo Chavez. Huge food shortages and a 1.3 million percent annual inflation rate due to price controls and lack of food production have led to as many as a third of Venezuelans in the once oil-rich nation eating just one meal a day, according to a recent study.
In the first few weeks of January alone, the Guardian reported, a Caracas rights group found 107 instances of looting and deaths in 19 of Venezuela’s 23 states.
Those who have left, said Orlando radio journalist Ali Suarez, “have done their best to let people know the government is trying to make Venezuela worse every day. It’s no longer possible to live safely there.”
As Florida governor, Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott was an early critic of Maduro, prohibiting state agencies from doing business with companies backed by the Maduro regime.
Scott has also been clear, spokeswoman Sarah Schwirian said, that he favors “a permanent solution to TPS as part of a larger border security deal.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also joined with U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, to introduce a bill to extend Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Venezuelan refugees.
On the House side, U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, DKissimmee, joined with U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, RHialeah, to introduce a companion bill to extend TPS protections for Venezuelans.
Soto said he is confident a TPS bill would pass the House. But he said in a time when the Trump administration is seeking to end similar protections for people from other Caribbean and Latin American nations, including Haiti and El Salvador, “I think it’s important Congress applies it consistently.”
In the Senate, a joint resolution to recognize Guaido as president failed Thursday over uneasiness about the potential use of the U.S. military.
Menendez said he was concerned about language in the resolution that “might be interpreted to be an authorization of the use of military force,” Bloomberg reported.
At the same time, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, in a Univision op-ed, outright criticized Democrats such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, because “all oppose military intervention.”
Soto, who is of Puerto Rican descent, pushed back against calls for armed U.S. involvement.
“I know that there would be Republicans and Democrats in the House that would be concerned, including myself, about military action,” Soto said. “I was even on Fox News only a few days ago, and even the hosts of Fox News were concerned about military action.”
Both parties, he said, agree on sanctions that he said would deny billions of dollars in revenue to Citgo, the state-owned oil company he called “an arm of Venezuela that is propping up the Maduro regime.”
Republicans are making the issue one of their key messages, best exemplified in the title of McDaniel’s Univision op-ed: “Venezuela, Republicans are with you.”
Florida’s Venezuelan population is beginning to notice, said Samuel Vilchez Santiago, a Princeton student and Venezuelan activist from Orlando.
“As a lifelong Democrat, one of my fears is that the next generation of Venezuelan immigrants, the Venezuelans coming here, will somehow be part of the Republican base,” Santiago said.
Diaz said he was a strong supporter of President Obama and would never vote for Trump because of his anti-immigration policies. But, he added, while he originally distrusted Scott because of his support of Arizona’s law allowing law enforcement to ask for immigration papers, he came to support Scott because of his early support of sanctions against Maduro.
While he has talked repeatedly with Scott, Diaz said he waited months for Scott’s opponent, then-U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, to have a meeting with the Venezuelan community.
“When you go to the political angle, you see there are Republicans behind the Venezuelan community,” he said. “Democrats are, too, but not as strongly as Republicans. … I hate to tell you, but I’m a registered Democrat and an active Democrat, but before that, I’m a Venezuelan.”
Santiago, who along with Diaz praised Soto and state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, for their support of asylum, said many in the community forget such support is “a bipartisan issue.”
“Both Democrats and Republicans support the recognition of Guaido,” Santiago said. “The problem is, Democratic leadership seems to be somehow mixed in their responses. People from the left, progressive side – Bernie Sanders, [U.S. Rep. Ilhan] Omar [D-Minnesota] – they’re out speaking against recognition and talking about a ‘U.S.-led coup.’ The Republican side has a more united front in recognizing the new Venezuelan government.”
“It’s that division within the Democratic Party that’s used to create a narrative that Republicans help more,” Santiago said.
A supporter cheers during Vice President Mike Pence’s speech Feb. 1 at Iglesia Doral Jesus Worship Center in Doral.