Ruth Alcalá just wants the president she twice voted for, Barack Obama, to speak forcefully about Venezuela’s crackdown on protesters.
But for more than a month, she says, she and other Venezuelans have been “disappointed” by what they see as the Obama administration’s relative silence, as she gathered 1,000 signatures for a letter that calls on Obama to act — or at least speak.
“At the least, we want to hear the president say something,” said Alcalá, who teaches computer training in Miami.
On Monday, the 57-year-old Democrat found herself standing next to an unlikely ally: Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott, who promised to personally deliver her letter to the White House.
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“Mr. President, you’ve got to declare economic sanctions. You’ve got to show up,” Scott told an enthusiastic crowd of Venezuelan exiles at the Don Criollito restaurant in Kendall.
Scott contrasted Obama’s low-key diplomacy with Venezuela to the president’s response to Russia after its invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
“He cares about Ukraine. But he’s not caring about Venezuela,” Scott said.
Democrats quickly condemned Scott’s criticism as an election-year ploy to attract Hispanic voters as he struggles in the polls.
Some noted that Obama has spoken about Venezuela. On Feb. 19, he criticized Venezuela's arrests of protesters and its expulsion of three U.S. diplomats.
But for Alcalá and those who care about Venezuela, Scott’s motives don’t matter. They want action from the White House.
“This plea and this fight are for democracy,” said Alcalá. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
Jonathan P. Lalley, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in an email that the administration hasn’t ruled out sanctions.
“Our immediate focus is on encouraging the start of a meaningful dialogue between the Venezuelan government and its people. With our international partners, we continue to look at what more we can do in support of that effort,” Lalley wrote.
“At the same time, we’ve been clear about the need for protesters to be released and for fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech and assembly to be protected and respected,” he said, noting that the Organization for American States and the European Union share that view.
“The future of Venezuela is for the Venezuelan people to decide. They have legitimate grievances that deserve to be addressed.”
Protests over inflation, shortages of basic goods and rampant crime erupted there in February.
The government led by President Nicolás Maduro — likely with the help of its allies in Cuba, critics say — has reacted by using tear gas and firing live-ammunition rounds on some protesters and imprisoning political opponents.
Alcalá, who moved to the United States 34 years ago, said she decided to write to Obama as a “mom making a plea” on Feb. 24.
She copied the letter 100 times, she said, and had various people from her community endorse it. She sent them to the White House “one by one. I still haven’t received a response,” she said.
But word got out. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami-Dade resident, promised to help after he learned of the letter.
Meantime, Lopez-Cantera’s close friend, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, has been forcefully denouncing the crackdowns in Venezuela on the Senate floor.
Rubio joined forces with Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey in co-sponsoring a bill to place economic sanctions on top regime officials in Venezuela.
“This government is surrounded by individuals who are living lives of luxury, not just in Venezuela but in Florida,” Rubio said last week on the Senate floor during a debate about aid to Ukraine.
“There are people tied to the government in Venezuela buying gold-plated iPads,” Rubio said, adding that some are “in Miami, investing in enormous properties and mansions, with the money that they are stealing, with the help of the Maduro government, from the people of Venezuela, leading to these protests.”
Rubio and Scott in late February appeared at a Venezuelan restaurant in Doral to call for sanctions.
Rubio’s legislation, proposed March 13, has yet to receive a vote. A similar House measure, pushed by Republican U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Miami, also hasn’t moved much.
Also last month, Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston indicated she supported sanctions and said the administration was considering them.
For Venezuelan activists such as Alcalá, the congressional support is helpful, but it’s time for Obama to speak up about Venezuela.
“I can’t understand why, if he stands for democracy the way I know he does, he could not even mention it,” she said.
“Just mention it.”