Fabiola Santiago

As Republicans earn their stripes on Venezuela, Democrats let an opportunity slip by

Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott give Vice President Mike Pence a standing ovation as Pence spoke about Venezuela at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral on Wednesday.
Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Rick Scott give Vice President Mike Pence a standing ovation as Pence spoke about Venezuela at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral on Wednesday. cjuste@miamiherald.com

When Marco Rubio walked up to the podium at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral, the emotional crowd of Venezuelans suffering the loss of their homeland rose to give the Republican Florida senator a standing ovation.

“¡Te amamos!” they clamored.

Yes, Venezuelans love Marco Rubio fiercely — and he’s earned it.

Rubio has made himself an indispensable player on the issue most important to them: the U.S. response to Nicolás Maduro’s brazen moves to cement, before our very eyes, a Cuba-style dictatorship in Venezuela.

Rubio has opened White House doors to leaders of the Maduro opposition. He’s said to be the architect of President Donald Trump’s quickly emerging policy to sanction and isolate Maduro in the hemisphere, meriting an alleged death threat by pro-Maduro National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello. Rubio is on Twitter every day hammering his stand on every development in Venezuela, between tweets of biblical proverbs.

To top off the political visuals, Rubio escorted Mike Pence on Wednesday as the vice president ended his Latin American tour in Doral by listening to the horrific stories of recently arrived Venezuelan exiles and telling anxious Venezuelans gathered at the church what they wanted to hear.

pence
Venezuelan exile Maria Eugenia Tovar holds a photo of her daughter, who was killed in 2014, as Vice President Mike Pence, right, listens through a translator. Pence held a roundtable with many Venezuelan exiles at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral on Wednesday. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Pence reassured them that, under President Trump, “the United States will bring the full measure of American economic and diplomatic power to bear until democracy is restored in Venezuela.” And he brought everyone else into the fold, adding: “We all live in the same neighborhood. We succeed when our neighbors succeed. We can’t let that [dictatorship] happen. We won’t let that happen.”

There may have not been details delivered other than that there will be more economic sanctions, but most importantly on a local level, Rubio, Pence and other Republican politicians at the event showered Venezuelans with rousing and unwavering political support for their cause.

And all I could think was: Where are the Democrats?

Breaking no ground. Taking no stands. Letting a tremendous opportunity for some genuine connection to a community in need pass them by. It’s as if the silent Democrats didn’t learn their lesson on how Cubans in swing-state Florida became the GOP’s best election weapon.

There will be a political price to pay in local, state and congressional elections for the missteps in foreign policy in a region that bills itself as the Gateway to the Americas.

To Venezuelans, Rubio has become a patron saint — and he’s bringing along for the political ride other Florida Republicans, most notably Gov. Rick Scott, who is positioning himself to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for his seat in 2018.

Despite Trump’s antics — his comment on not ruling out an invasion didn’t go down well in a hemisphere weary of that kind of U.S. history — the Republicans aren’t stumbling on the Venezuelan issue. They’re savvy and coordinated, and without a minute to waste, are already hitting Nelson hard with a misleading ad linking him to Hugo Chávez and equating his support for President Barack Obama’s Cuba-engagement policy with support for the Castros.

Nelson, a critic of Chávez, called in a Senate floor speech in July for harsher sanctions than the tough-talking Trump and Pence have delivered. “It’s time that we consider cutting imports of Venezuelan oil,” Nelson said. “We are now dealing with a Cuban-style dictator.”

He should’ve crashed the Republican solo party in Doral. He, too, has earned his stripes on the Venezuela issue, certainly more of them than Scott. But someone in his campaign wasn’t minding South Florida.

Too bad.

Too many Democrats I know are sitting back disengaged from Latin American affairs while they lose elections, too comfortably armed with their 50-50 poll results on how Cuban Americans voted for Hillary Clinton and Trump, a bigger margin win for Clinton than Obama’s. And another favorite: how a majority of Cuban Americans support engagement with Cuba.

On the other hand, it has taken no time for Republicans to draw political blood and capitalize on Venezuela and Cuba’s back-pedaling on the U.S. opening.

Republicans wouldn’t be able to get away with winning so easily if Democrats were on the job: visually present supporting the Venezuelan community both online and in South Florida, up close and personal. And not because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s the right thing to do. Saving Venezuela is a cause worthy of bipartisan support.

I know there’s no catching up to Saint Marco, but there’s no reason why the establishment of another dictatorship in the Americas isn’t a big showcase issue for the Democrats.

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