Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Bill Nelson try to keep U.S. attention on Venezuelan political unrest

Florida’s two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, joined forces Thursday in Doral to call for stepped-up attention to and potential U.S. sanctions against Venezuela for repressing political protests.

They also suggested that Venezuelans should become eligible for special U.S. immigration status.

To try to persuade their colleagues, Rubio said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold a hearing soon on the ongoing unrest, with as-yet-unnamed leaders of the Venezuelan opposition invited to testify. Rubio is a committee member.

“What we want to do is build a case,” Rubio said — not only for sanctions against members of President Nicolás Maduro’s administration, but also perhaps against private Venezuelan citizens tied to the government.

That possibility has attracted particular interest in South Florida, home to the largest community of Venezuelans outside their country, including some rumored Maduro allies. Miami and Orlando remain frequent destinations for Venezuelan tourists, who include government officials.

The two senators said their appearance at El Arepazo 2, a casual eatery in the Venezuelan stronghold of Doral, was a show of unity with the Venezuelan people, whose country has been engulfed in sometimes-violent protests since early February. It marked Rubio’s third visit, he said; Nelson said he came at the Republican’s invitation.

They were greeted by a gaggle of television crews and a boisterous audience, though the restaurant was far less crowded than it was last time Rubio visited, with Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, two months ago.

Nelson said he and Rubio agree that President Barack Obama’s administration should take a stronger position against the Venezuelan government, though Nelson shied away from directly criticizing Obama.

“It’s not like the president of the United States doesn’t have a lot on his plate,” he said, rattling off a list of other foreign-policy hotspots, including Ukraine.

Still, Nelson added, Secretary of State John Kerry “still needs to get to this.” He also endorsed “yanking some visas” of members of Maduro’s government.

“When you start freezing bank accounts, when you start withdrawing visas, it starts an effect,” Nelson said.

Rubio, who in the past has chided Obama for not doing more, struck a more-collegial tone Thursday, praising Vice President Joe Biden for condemning the violence last month. He also chastised members of his own party for failing to pay more attention to the Venezuelan situation.

His office has drafted a list of Venezuelan government officials and private citizens who could be targeted for sanctions, Rubio said, but it is not ready to make it public until it compiles evidence against all of them.

“If we are wrong with one name . . . we lose the confidence of our colleagues,” he said.

The two senators also said they would explore the possibility of giving asylum-seekers and other Venezuelans in the United States a special immigration designation — similar to Temporary Protected Status — that would allow them to remain in the country legally.

The Senate and House have already passed resolutions condemning the Venezuelan violence.

“There is bipartisan Democrat and Republican consensus that we’re on the side of the Venezuelan people,” Rubio said.