Gov. Rick Scott accused President Obama on Friday of “doing the wrong thing” by not quickly and vocally proposing sanctions against the government of Venezuela for suppressing protestors.
Democrats were quick to accuse Scott of trying to score political points in South Florida’s burgeoning Venezuelan community and of ignoring efforts by the Obama administration to negotiate with Caracas.
But Scott, speaking in Doral, said Obama isn’t doing enough. He said Obama should support sanctions proposed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio against the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro.
“We should clearly freeze the bank accounts of Maduro and his gang,” Scott said. “Stop the travel visas — don’t allow anybody who’s impacting these protestors, peaceful protestors — from coming into our country. They should never be able to come into our country.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Scott also said the president should do what he and Rubio did on Friday: Visit Venezuelans in communities like Doral, where the Republican governor and senator addressed a packed crowd at El Arepazo 2 restaurant, along with Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
“The president needs to show up,” said Scott, noting Obama is scheduled to visit the Miami area on March 7.
Rubio called for expedited asylum review for Venezuelans fleeing the regime; Scott stopped short of echoing the senator.
As Scott and Rubio made their comments, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee passed a resolution deploring the violence in Venezuela sponsored by Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Scott’s broadside against the president was condemned by Florida Democrats, who said the governor was exploiting a tragedy for personal gain.
“Where was he when the rallies were happening? He jumped on this six or seven days after,” said Christian Ulvert, the political director of the Florida Democratic Party.
“The point needs to be made that, before politicians start speaking, they need to reflect that there’s bloodshed going on in a country,” Ulvert said.
Scott is trailing Democratic frontrunner Charlie Crist in early polls and is doing particularly poorly in South Florida, where the governor is down by double digits in many surveys.
Echoing other Democrats, Ulvert also took issue with what he said was the partisanship of Rubio’s criticism that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made “muddled” remarks about Venezuela on Wednesday at the University of Miami.
Rubio said the troubles in Venezuela, in part, reflect the lack of respect its current regime has for the United States due to the failures by Clinton and Obama to advance a strong foreign policy.
Rubio’s public remarks to the crowd at the restaurant Friday were more bipartisan. He pointed out that a sanctions bill he introduced the day before was co-sponsored by Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida and Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
Rubio said supporters of Maduro’s regime “steal” money from Venezuela, then spend it in the United States, particularly in South Florida and at Orlando-area resorts.
“Mr. President, stop that now,” Rubio said.
Later, in interviews with reporters, Rubio called out the Senate’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid, challenging him to give Rubio’s sanctions bill an up-or-down vote.
“He claims to care about Hispanic communities across America,” Rubio said. “Here’s his opportunity to prove that he means it.”
While Rubio and Scott criticize the White House’s efforts, Obama administration officials say they’re trying to find a solution to the problem in Venezuela and they haven’t spoken against sanctions.
“We will examine every aspect of what is available to us as an option to us, but most importantly, we need a dialogue in Venezuela, not arrests and violence in the streets, and persecution against young people who are voicing their hopes for a future,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, according to Reuters.
On Monday, U.S. Reps. Joe Garcia of Miami and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who is also the Democratic National Committee chair, will join other Democrats and to discuss the country’s ongoing crisis.
Meanwhile, Friday’s Doral event at El Arepazo 2 had the air of a campaign stop, with Scott kneeling down to speak to an infant, a toddler and their mother on his way into the restaurant. When Rubio stepped inside, he was greeted with chants of “ Gracias” (thank you), “ Marco, te queremos” (Marco, we love you) and “ Marco Rubio, presidente” (Marco Rubio for president).
Scott said they were “doing the right thing for this Venezuelan community — here and in Venezuela.” Four days before in a White House meeting with governors, Scott said he asked Obama to consider sanctions and the president hasn’t advocated for them.
“He’s doing the wrong thing,” Scott said.
At the end of their remarks, a man presented the three politicians with scarves depicting the U.S. flag next to the Venezuelan flag. After they put them around their necks, the crowd got on its feet and began an impromptu rendition of the Venezuelan national anthem.
The man with the scarves was Guillermo Beltrán, who said he is a retired Venezuelan military officer. He said Rubio’s proposed sanctions, and the media exposure from Scott, would “undoubtedly” help the Venezuelan opposition.
“Those are some of the tools that can pressure the government in a way that’s not violent,” he said. “There are no weapons. We don’t want trouble.”
His friend Oscar Betancourt another retired officer, said U.S. political leaders need to care more about what happens in Latin America.
“They have to turn around to look at their backyard,” Betancourt said.
If bringing up Venezuela leads to some partisan posturing between Republicans and Democrats, then so be it, Betancourt added: “Venezuelans must take support from whichever party offers it.”
Gisela Parra, who heads the local branch of a coalition of opposition parties known as MUD, said Venezuelans in the U.S. care more about raising awareness of the problems back home than about whether its Democrats or Republicans doing the talking.
“Both parties are supporting us and asking for action,” Parra said. “It’s time for the world to finally realize that what exists in Venezuela is a brutal dictatorship.”