Venezue­lans here fret over fu­ture of na­tion — and their own fates

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Le­mon­gello Or­lando Sen­tinel

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.

BRYNN AN­DER­SON/AP

A sup­porter cheers dur­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence’s speech Feb. 1 at Igle­sia Do­ral Je­sus Wor­ship Cen­ter in Do­ral.

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