Like the Cubans Before Them, Venezuelan Exiles Are Transforming Florida Politics
Both U.S. parties are hustling to recruit a flood of new voters in a crucial state for presidential elections
One August day, hundreds of Venezuelans packed the pews at a local church to hear Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Marco Rubio preach against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and pledge to help restore democracy in the oil-rich nation.
“We will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles,” said Mr. Pence. “Libertad! Libertad!” many in the crowd shouted, waving tricolor Venezuelan yellow, blue and red flags, and giving the Republican officials standing ovations.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans, pushed by a failed economy and repression back home, are finding their way to South Florida. Their growing numbers and Venezuela’s dramatic implosion could tip the political balance in this crucial swing state, where presidential elections are decided by the thinnest of margins.
The arrival of the Venezuelans echoes an earlier era when Cuban exiles fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist regime settled in Miami decades ago. Eventually they morphed into Cuban-Americans and organized themselves into a potent economic and political force, particularly for the Republican Party.
Venezuela’s meltdown, and the regime’s Cuban connection—Cuba’s President Raúl Castro remains Mr. Maduro’s closest ally and adviser—have focused the imagination of U.S. politicians of both parties. Many believe Venezuelan-Americans could develop into a powerful and perhaps captive voting bloc.
Ramón Muchacho was a recent arrival in the crowd that day. As mayor of a key Caracas suburb, he fled Venezuela after the country’s Supreme Court convicted him in August for his alleged failure to stop antigovernment protests. He faced 15 months in prison.
Mr. Muchacho liked what he heard from the vice president and Republican senator. “The vice president told us we could count on the Trump administration,” he said.
Where Cubans once came by small boats, rafts made of inner tubes and planes, Venezuelans fly straight here from Caracas, their belongings in a few suitcases. Like the Cubans who came in the 1960s, the new arrivals say they are fleeing a land they love because they can no longer live in a country where the government has destroyed the economy, imprisoned opponents and killed protesters.
Many Venezuelans are escaping to neighboring countries such as Colombia or back to the countries of their forefathers, including Spain. In the U.S., the destination of choice is Miami, which has an established Venezuelan enclave. Many enter with tourist visas and then change them to other types of visas or plead for asylum.
Applications by Venezuelans for political asylum during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 nearly doubled to 27,629, from 14,728 in 2016 and 5,605 in 2015, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. More people from Venezuela seek asylum in the U.S. than from any other country.
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