Before he employed words of resolve and impending triumph to rally a crowd of Venezuelans inside a tightly packed church in Doral on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence quietly listened to hastily told stories of pain and persecution from a handful of exiled residents of the beleaguered South American country.
He saw images of malnourished and sickly children, presented to him by a surgeon at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. Learned that a former city councilman was run out of his homeland after accusations that he was working as a foreign agent.
And he listened to Raul Diaz describe the years he spent as a prisoner before winning a conditional release and fleeing to the United States.
“Explaining what it’s like for a political prisoner would take all day,” Diaz said. “What you’ve’ heard today isn’t the half of it.”
As Venezuela descends into further political turmoil — National Assembly President Juan Guaidó on Jan. 23 declared himself the rightful head of state, kicking off deadly protests in the country — Pence visited Iglesia Doral Jesus Worship Center in Doral Friday afternoon to express support for Guaidó’s efforts at forcing the current president, Nicolás Maduro, out of office. He emphasized that the Trump administration considers that “all options are on the table” regarding the transition of power.
Doral is the U.S. city with the largest percentage of Venezuelan-born residents, and members of the public flooded through the church doors, some waving Venezuelan flags and wearing Make America Great Again hats.
Pence was joined by several of Florida’s elected officials and Guaido’s newly recognized top diplomat in the U.S., Carlos Vecchio.
“We heard from Jesús, a former council member. We listened to Raul, wrongly accused and imprisoned for 7 years,” Pence said. “To all these courageous men and women, to all of you who have fled Venezuela, we are with you and I promise we will stay with you until you can safely return home.”
The Trump administration last week recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. Countries like Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia soon followed. Maduro, who was first elected in 2013, won reelection in 2018 in a contest widely criticized as illegitimate.
As the head of the National Assembly, Guaidó has a legitimate claim to the position, according to supporters. In a video posted to Facebook on Wednesday, Maduro warned the U.S. against military intervention and accused the Trump administration of planning a coup.
On Monday, the U.S. announced sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. President Donald Trump called Guaidó on Wednesday to congratulate him on his “historic assumption of the presidency.”
“The moment is now,” said Vecchio, addressing the crowd. “Venezuela is prepared for change. You may extend the agony but you can’t stop the change.”
As protesters prepare to take to the streets on Saturday, Pence said the U.S. supported their efforts and wished them well.
“Let’s be clear,” he said. “This is no time for dialogue. This is time for action. And the time has come to end the Maduro dictatorship once and for all.”
Notably absent from Friday’s event were South Florida’s Democratic members of Congress. The head of the Florida Democratic Party issued a statement criticizing Pence for not hosting newly elected Miami congresswomen Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, or the former Democratic National Committee chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
“Lawmakers in Washington and in Tallahassee have been working in a bipartisan fashion to help secure Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans, and humanitarian aid for those suffering at the hands of the Maduro Regime. In a time where our two parties can rarely stand together in solidarity, this should have been one of them,” said Terrie Rizzo in the statement.