Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: Venezuela joins Cuba in hothouse of Florida politics

Venezuela is the new Cuba.

“I listen to this stuff about Cuba and I listen to what’s happening in Venezuela. They’re very similar — not just in the repression part, but the economics part,” Florida’s Marco Rubio explained on the U.S. Senate floor last Monday as he condemned the violence in Venezuela.

“They look more and more like Cuba economically and politically every single day.”

There’s a third similarity: Venezuela is a new way to talk about Cuba, particularly in the exilic hothouse of Florida.

For Republicans, who have watched the once-reliable Cuban-American GOP vote lean more Democratic, Venezuela provides a fresh way to remind voters about the failures of a socialist-totalitarian state. And Havana’s role in the unrest in Caracas and San Cristóbal provides a new counter to those who want to lift the embargo against Cuba.

Rubio made that case Monday. But there’s more to Rubio’s speech than merely keeping the embargo in place.

There’s a reason Rubio joined Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera at a Doral event Friday to talk about Venezuela sanctions: The unrest gives them an opening to talk to an emerging group of voters.

There’s also a reason that a key Democrat in the nation’s immigration debate, U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia of Miami, called on President Barack Obama last Monday to grant asylum for and to halt the deportations of many Venezuelans.

“The Venezuela community is up for grabs. Both parties see that,” said Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan journalist and analyst who once worked for el Nuevo Herald.

The size of the state’s Venezuelan community has more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, to more than 117,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census, which estimates there are about 250,000 nationally. More than three-quarters of Florida’s Venezuelans live in Miami-Dade and Broward.

Not counting those under 18, Florida’s population of those from Venezuela could translate into 30,000 to 50,000 voters or eligible voters, depending on how the percentages are figured.

The numbers aren’t huge, but they could still be significant in a state where the 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes, the 2010 governor’s race by 61,550 and the 2012 presidential race by 74,309.

And the numbers of Venezuelan voters are poised to grow further.

Venezuelan exiles began flocking here during Hugo Chávez’s 14-year reign in Venezuela. Expect more to come now that the nation under Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, appears to be doing even worse.

Over the past decade, more Venezuelans have started to see the United States and Florida as home. They’ve had children here. They’ve opened up businesses here. And they’ve even elected Miami-Dade’s first mayor from Venezuela, Doral’s Luigi Boria. The city itself is often called “Doralzuela.”

More of them not only want U.S. citizenship; they want to vote.

“In Venezuela, voting is a big deal. It’s a family tradition to go vote,” Poleo said. “I foresee them taking that tradition to the United States.”

Aside from everyone’s legitimate interests in helping people in their time of need, the politicians and political parties want them to pick a side.

On Friday night, after Scott, Rubio and Lopez-Cantera appeared at the Arepazo 2 restaurant in Doral, Miami-Dade’s Republican Party issued a press release that told Venezuelans “the Republican Party stands with them.”

“Unfortunately,” the press release said, “Joe Garcia and the Democrats continue a policy of cozying up to America’s enemies like Nicolás Maduro and abandoning our freedom-loving allies.”

The over-the-top rhetoric is false. Garcia supports a Republican House resolution condemning Venezuela for the violence. Garcia has also signed on to a letter from U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, calling on the president to unilaterally impose sanctions that resemble Rubio’s proposal, which targets individual members of the regime whose U.S. assets and travel rights would be frozen.

The press release never mentioned Garcia’s call to legalize the status of Venezuelan exiles here — an issue that accrues to the Democrats’ gain as Republicans block immigration reform on Capitol Hill and continue to struggle with Hispanic voters.

Garcia called the Republican attack an unfortunate example and symptom of the “political games” that have sometimes turned the debate over Cuba into a shout-fest.

That instance of GOP overreach aside, Republicans appear to be been winning the public relations battle for Venezuelan hearts and minds so far. Except for Garcia, Democrats haven’t been as out front on the issue as Republicans.

But that’s changing. Garcia will join U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committeee chairwoman, at a Hollywood “listening session” to hear from constituents and Hispanic leaders. She lives in Weston, aka “Westonzuela,” the second-largest community of Venezuelans behind Doral.

Rubio’s speech Monday was hailed by Venezuelans, as were the proposed sanctions. Days later, many expressed support for Rubio’s criticism of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said at a University of Miami speech last Wednesday that Venezuela is “a democracy. No one would argue that it isn’t.”

Clinton then went on to essentially argue with herself by ticking off how un-democratic Venezuela is to arrive at the conclusion that “other than elections, there aren’t very many characteristics of a real democracy right now in Venezuela.”

Rubio, positioning himself for a White House run along with Clinton in 2016, said she espoused a “muddled position” indicative of what he calls Clinton’s and Obama’s foreign-policy failures. At the end of last week, the Obama administration became consumed with another foreign crisis: the Russian invasion of Ukrainian-held Crimea, which diverted national attention away from Venezuela.

Scott was far more strident in attacking Obama at the Friday event.

The governor excoriated the president for not pushing sanctions. Scott pointed out he raised the sanctions issue Monday at a governors meeting with Obama. Scott also issued a Wednesday video address calling for democracy in Venezuela. Scott on Friday challenged Obama, who is coming to Miami-Dade for an as-yet unnamed event on Friday, to visit with Venezuelan exiles.

Scott’s criticisms of Obama have two big upsides. Scott gets to contrast himself with the president, who is less popular than he is in Florida. And it plays well in Miami-Dade, where early polls indicate Scott is doing horribly against front-running Democrat Charlie Crist in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

After the Friday event, when asked about Venezuela, Scott brushed off his Spanish.

The message is: “ Estamos con el pueblo de Venezuela.” That is, “We’re with the Venezuelan people.”

Scott hopes they and Cuban Americans will repay him with their votes.