Why Venezuela politics matter to Miami’s Cuban-American lawmakers

Musicians play their instruments as they sit in the middle of a road littered with metro tickets at a roadblock set up by anti-government protesters in Caracas on Thursday.
Musicians play their instruments as they sit in the middle of a road littered with metro tickets at a roadblock set up by anti-government protesters in Caracas on Thursday. AP

For months, Cuban-American lawmakers have deployed familiar rhetoric to warn Washington colleagues of a democracy under threat in Latin America, where people are deprived of food and the ballot box, and where economic collapse could empower Russia uncomfortably close to home.

“This is a dysfunctional narco-state that is in a death spiral in terms of its ability to function,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“We are talking about a nearly failed state in our own hemisphere,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

“We will have a swift and firm response from our own administration,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

But the tough talk isn’t about Cuba. It’s about Venezuela.

The fight for a free Cuba — a fight carried in their bones, transcending all politics — has fueled Cuban-American lawmakers for decades in their campaign against Fidel and Raúl Castro. But President Donald Trump has already taken a tougher line toward Cuba, as the legislators wanted. So, the unfolding Venezuela crisis has become Cuban Americans’ new crusade.

“Just like it has been too long for the Cuban people, most people are coming to the understanding that this is part of the same movement, the same cancer that has been sickening the Cuban people and the Venezuelan people for decades now,” Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo said in a Capitol Hill speech to Venezuelan activists and lawmakers Wednesday.

Cuban-American Republicans and Democrats agree President Nicolás Maduro must be stopped. Their united front could amplify their clout: As with Cuba, one of their own — Rubio — has proven to be the White House’s go-to legislator on Latin America.

Rubio, a Republican who’s spent years in Congress criticizing Maduro, says he’s been in regular touch with Trump and especially Vice President Mike Pence about how to sanction Venezuela if Maduro moves forward with a planned July 30 election. That vote would create a constituent assembly empowered to rewrite the nation’s constitution, effectively replacing a democratically elected legislature with Maduro loyalists.

“The United States will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” Trump said in a statement Monday, released as Rubio made similar remarks on Twitter. “If the Maduro regime imposes its Constituent Assembly on July 30, the United States will take strong and swift economic actions.”

Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo and fellow Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart back banning Venezuelan oil imports, a drastic measure once considered unthinkable against the No. 3 oil supplier to the U.S. But also in favor is a local Democrat, Weston Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents thousands of Venezuelans.

The message: On Cuba, Rubio and company faced significant opposition, both on Capitol Hill and in Trump’s administration. On Venezuela, they don’t.

“There’s not a single senator that I’ve seen, and no House member that I’ve heard from, who still supports this regime,” Rubio told the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute in bilingual remarks Wednesday. “Once there were people who sometimes backed [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, or said things about Chávez in the past. But that doesn’t exist anymore. No one here supports Maduro.”

Even Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat who worked with the late Chávez, frequently traveled to Venezuela during Chávez’s presidency and is the only sitting member of Congress who attended Chávez’s funeral, supports sanctions.

“We are compelled to take a stand on what’s right,” Meeks said. “Sanctions that are being considered are the right things to do.”

Behind the bipartisan push is a deeply held belief that Maduro is just another Fidel — and a sense that if Cuban Americans and their allies don’t defend Venezuela in Washington, no one will.

“We need to let the Venezuelan people know that they are not alone in this fight, that we stand together with them, that we will not rest until Venezuela is free from oppression and is once again a nation of democracy and the rule of law,” Ros-Lehtinen said in an impassioned speech Wednesday.

The position is certainly heart-felt, but politics aren’t entirely out of the picture: Venezuelans fleeing Chávez and now Maduro could emerge as a significant voting bloc in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state.

Some 248,000 Venezuelans lived in the U.S. in 2013, according to Census estimates, with about 104,000 of them in Florida. That’s not a huge number, but big enough to potentially make a difference in Florida’s infamously close elections. The 2014 governor’s race was decided by 64,145 votes, and the 2016 presidential race by 112,911.

Venezuela’s latest political and economic crisis has only attracted more immigrants; the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the U.S. tripled from 2015 to 2016.

But don’t dare mention electoral politics to lawmakers.

“This is not remotely a partisan issue,” Wasserman Schultz said, echoing Rubio. “That’s the last thing I’m thinking about, whether new Venezuelan-Americans will be Democrats or Republicans.”

Both Democrats (Wasserman Schultz, state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami and state Rep. Richard Stark of Weston) and Republicans (Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen) showed up last Sunday to South Florida voting sites where thousands of Venezuelans were casting ballots in an informal referendum held by Maduro opponents. With Spanish-language media devoting wall-to-wall coverage to Venezuela in recent weeks, the politicians benefited from a dose of airtime.

Early referendum tallies showed about 103,000 Venezuelans voting in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties alone, mostly in Doral — which has the highest percentage of Venezuelans of any city in the country — Coral Gables and Weston.

Like Cubans before them, the vast majority of Venezuelan immigrants are united by a single issue: opposition to Chávez and Maduro, the two presidents who drove them out of their country. Miami Democrats worry Venezuelans, like Cubans, will reward Trump and Rubio’s tough stance by voting reliably Republican.

“The fact that I live in a country where Trump is president gives me nightmares every day, but I have to say, that is more than [former President] Obama did in eight years,” said Helena Poleo, a Venezuela analyst and Democrat who once worked for el Nuevo Herald.

Late last year, the Obama administration backed “dialogue” between Maduro and his opponents, a move now seen as having given the Venezuelan government more time to ignore its critics.

“That’s a bad taste we have left in our mouth from the Obama administration,” Poleo said. “The truth is that, right now, the people that are in power are the Republicans, and Trump’s statement was really strong. And Ileana, and Marco Rubio, they’ve owned this issue. They have decades of practice with the Cubans, so they know exactly how they need to approach this, and it’s the hard line.”

Cuban exiles rose to political power in the 1980s, after Miami builder Jorge Mas Canosa and a handful of allies launched the Cuban American National Foundation to influence Washington. Modeled after the pro-Israel American-Israel Political Action Committee, Foundation leaders successfully lobbied Republicans and Democrats. But in Miami, Jeb Bush and other operatives were recruiting Cuban Americans to register as Republicans and run for office.

For now, Venezuelans have no similar organization — or commitment to a party. A majority voted for John McCain in 2008 and then for Barack Obama in 2012.

The last Cuban-American Democrat from Miami in Congress, ex-Rep. Joe Garcia, who lost reelection in 2014, championed Venezuelan causes in the House. But now it’s chiefly local Republican lawmakers leading the charge, most notably when Rubio brought the wife of Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner, Leopoldo López, to the White House in February.

“How do you fight Marco Rubio getting Lilian Tintori to go to Washington D.C. and meet with the president?” lamented Lourdes Diaz, a Broward Democratic activist pushing for diversity within party ranks. “Can Bill Nelson do that? El no habla español.”

Sen. Nelson is a frequent Maduro critic; he and a bipartisan group of senators are pushing Trump not to cut funding for programs that seek to promote democracy in Venezuela. The programs were on the chopping block in Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

“Now is the time to redouble, not eliminate, support for democracy and human rights activists in Venezuela,” Nelson wrote Wednesday in a letter to a Senate appropriations committee.

But it’s hard to match the fervor of Cuban Americans, whose innermost personal passion aligns with their Venezuela policy interests.

“It would be the first loss of democracy in the region in almost 40 years,” Rubio said Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “This is 1970s stuff, and we’re not going back to that in this region, and the people of Venezuela aren’t going back to that.

“How truly tragic would it be for one the richest countries in the world, one of the best educated populations in the region and the world one of the most entrepreneurial people in the world and one of the most democratic societies in the hemisphere to become Cuba.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

Patricia Mazzei: 305-376-3350, @PatriciaMazzei

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