Under a blazing sun and amid a sea of Venezuelan flags, thousands gathered Saturday afternoon in a Doral park in solidarity with anti-government protests in Venezuela.
The S.O.S. Venezuela rally at J.C. Bermudez Park at 3000 Northwest 87th Ave. was one of more than 155 held in cities around the world.
Carrying signs seeking help for their homeland, many who gathered in Doral blamed President Nicolás Maduro for widespread crime, food shortages and lack of freedom -- among other issues. They also called on the international community to take action.
“I’m here because we are tired of the government we have,” said María Archer, a Venezuelan who has lived in the United States for 15 years. “It is a government that represses the people, that does not allow freedom of expression, that is responsible for staple shortages and violence. Thus, we are urging the international community to assist us in ridding Venezuela of this government.”
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Said Blanca Aleman, 44, of Weston: “I was born and raised in Venezuela. I love my country and I want my kids to know the country I knew, not what it is now.”
While her 18-year-old son Marc Burnard was able to accompany her, Aleman’s parents and brother are still back home.
“My brother is very worried,” Aleman said. “He has kids in college and he just wants to get out.”
The rally, which attracted as many as 4,000 people according to police, was organized by several groups including the "Un Mundo Sin Mordaza" (A World Without Censorship).
Carlos Tagliafica, one of the many South Florida volunteers, said the rallies were to support students in Venezuela who have been leading protests there.
"This is all for the students," Tagliafica said.
In Venezuela, protests over the past two weeks have resulted in violence and deaths as government opponents and supporters have each taken to the streets. Competing rallies in the deeply divided nation took place again on Saturday in Caracas. As many as 10 deaths have been reported since Feb. 12.
The ongoing protests have been characterized by some media observers in Caracas as the biggest since Maduro replaced President Hugo Chávez, who died March 5 last year.
Prominent opposition figure Leopoldo López also has been jailed on charges of fomenting violence, sparking outrage among supporters and criticism by human rights groups.
The New York-based Human Rights Foundation has declared López a “prisoner of conscience.”
In Doral, rally participants -- most dressed in white -- joined together in chants, songs and even prayer following a moment of silence.
"It's horrible," Caracas native Veronica Arocha said of the situation in her homeland.
The 31-year-old who now lives in Fort Lauderdale keeps in touch with her family using the mobile messaging application WhatsApp. She says the country is suffering from many shortages, including food and medicine.
"My brother is a Type I diabetic,” Arocha said. “He can't find insulin.”
Although the overwhelming majority of supporters were Venezuelan, other Latin American communities joined the movement.
Cuban-born Berardo Barrero said he took part in the rally because he can relate to the situation in Venezuela.
“You have to stand up for the right to liberty in all countries,” said Barrero, 57, of Miami Gardens.
One of the prominent Cuban exiles on hand at the Doral rally was Democracy Movement leader Ramón Saúl Sánchez, who has organized several “freedom flotillas” to waters near Cuba.
“I’m here to lend solidarity to the Venezuelan people,” Sánchez said. “And to tell the Venezuelan people that the Cubans who are murdering their people and that are violating their sovereignty are not representatives of the Cuban people, and that in many cases they are even victims of the Cuban dictatorship.”
Cuban military advisers are widely believed to be deployed in Venezuela to provide training or advise in intelligence, weapons and military logistics.
Latin Americans from Argentina, Peru, Nicaragua and elsewhere also were present.
“It’s great,” said Venezuelan Andrea Taglia Ferro, 29, of the Latin American solidarity. “Our situation is touching them.”
She added that social media has helped raise awareness.
“The rest of the country is getting involved thanks to Facebook,” Taglia Ferro said.
Most protesters agreed that the only way for improvement is a change in leadership.
“The country is sinking,” said Enrique Chacon, a native of San Cristobal in Venezuela. The 45-year-old attended the rally with his brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece.
“They have to let other people manage the country,” he said. “They have done everything wrong.”