MIAMI — For 60 years, the lifeblood of Miami’s idiosyncratic politics has been Cuba, the communist government’s countless sins denounced in street protests, dissected on the spirited Spanish-language airwaves and condemned at campaign rallies under the unifying cry of “Viva Cuba Libre!”
But the focus of this city’s freedom-loving fervor has recently moved further south.
Venezuela, not Cuba, now dominates Miami’s political conversation. A television anchor not long ago ended a somber segment with a promise to keep praying for the troubled South American country. Venezuelans in the city have gathered for demonstrations to coincide with protests back home. Even the Miami-Dade County Commission, a local body with no control over foreign policy, voted unanimously to recognize the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president.
The shift has been coming on gradually for years, but it has accelerated in recent weeks as Venezuela has sunk further into crisis and its leftist president, Nicolás Maduro, has clung defiantly to power. The showdown in Caracas is reshaping Latino politics in South Florida, home to the highest concentration of Venezuelans in the United States.
The change is not a mere demographic curiosity. In Florida, where major elections have repeatedly been decided by tiny margins, an inflection point around Venezuela’s leadership could help define a generation of Venezuelan-American voters, who number in the tens of thousands in this state. President Trump is pushing Mr. Maduro to step aside, and if he succeeds, Democrats fear it could transform Venezuelan-Americans into loyal Republicans, much like Cuban-Americans.
“This could be Bay of Pigs 2.0,” said Liz Alarcón, a Venezuelan-American Democrat, referring to the C.I.A.-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 that failed to overthrow Fidel Castro. The raid turned into a disaster, in part because President John F. Kennedy’s government did not provide sufficient air support to the Cuban exiles who made up the bulk of the invading force — and Florida’s Cuban community turned against both Mr. Kennedy and the Democratic Party.
“It is very dangerous territory for Democrats,” State Senator Annette Taddeo of Miami, a Colombian-American and a Democrat, said of her party’s handling of the Venezuela issue. “Republicans are very smart about working on the margins. They know that a state like Florida is usually decided by 1 percent or less, so all they need are enough of the Venezuelans, enough of the Colombians, enough of the Puerto Ricans.”
Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist, predicted that Venezuela policy — especially if the crisis continues to drag on — could become a key Florida question for presidential candidates in the 2020 election, as Puerto Rico was in 2018.
“Foreign policy has always been deeply intertwined in the Florida political landscape and the outcome of elections,” said Mr. Ulvert, who is Nicaraguan-American and married to a Venezuelan.
In South Florida, protesters have publicly shamed former members of the Venezuelan government in restaurants and angrily chanted outside Goldman Sachs when the bank purchased deeply discounted Venezuelan bonds, extending a financial lifeline to Mr. Maduro’s administration.
When Mr. Trump announced last month he was recognizing Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim leader, thousands of Venezuelans gathered in a park outside Miami to voice their support.
Ms. Alarcón, 30, said her fellow Democrats have been slow to react to Republican overtures not only to Venezuelans but also to other Democratic-leaning Latinos who fled authoritarian governments. They were especially alarmed when three liberal members of Congress — Representatives Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Ro Khanna of California and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — recently criticized the White House’s recognition of Mr. Guaidó and threats of more sanctions against Mr. Maduro.
“A U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face,” Ms. Omar wrote on Twitter, invoking a history of ill-received United States intervention against left-wing governments in Latin America during the Cold War years.
But many Venezuelan exiles are exasperated to see Democrats opposed to intervening in the alarming humanitarian crisis in their country because of the lingering politics of the past. “This is not a coup!” Joanna Hausmann, a Venezuelan-American comedian in New York, declared in a video she filmed to explain the situation.
“What tends to happen with Venezuelans is people have no idea why we’re here,” she said in an interview. Those who have fled the country, she said, are “running from dictatorship, from lack of food.”
Ms. Hausmann, 29, whose uncle, a journalist, is under house arrest back home, said she was attacked on social media as a “right-winger” for agreeing with Mr. Trump on Venezuela policy, though she disagrees with him on most everything else.
“I’m very disappointed in my liberal brethren,” she said. “Everything is distilled into, ‘Oh, Trump, and the history of coups in Latin America.’ It’s a completely different situation with a 25-year history.”
The potential problem for Democrats is that a few dissenting voices from the left challenging Mr. Trump’s increasingly popular policy on Venezuela might be louder than the rest of the party, said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, a Cuban-American Republican.
“Just like when we’ve had instances on the immigration issue where a small group of Republicans will say things and that becomes the Republican narrative on immigration, Democrats now have a similar — and serious — problem,” he said in an interview.
More top Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., have thrown their support behind Mr. Guaidó over the past few days.
Mr. Trump has said he is open to all options on Venezuela, including military ones. No Miami politicians, Republican or Democrat, favor armed conflict, but they have espoused bipartisan support for the president’s other statements so far. In a rare moment of unity, Mr. Diaz-Balart and four Democratic lawmakers from Miami and Orlando have introduced bills to restrict arm sales to Mr. Maduro’s government, grant Venezuelan immigrants temporary protected status, and provide the country with humanitarian aid.
“This is very American, to support democracy,” said Representative Donna Shalala, a Democrat.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican who has played a central role in crafting the Trump administration’s policy, said in an interview that critics from outside Florida who look at the issue through an old ideological prism often have an uninformed view of Venezuela: “Their history on this issue is maybe a week old.”
He compared Miami’s ties to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital that is just a three-hour plane ride away, to inseparable cities along the southwest border.
“The closest sort of analogy would be with border towns in Mexico, who are deeply dependent on cross-border trade,” Mr. Rubio said. He recalled attending a family friend’s wedding in the Venezuelan city of Valencia when he was younger. “You can’t live in Miami without knowing people in Venezuela.”
Ernesto Ackerman, 69, a Venezuelan-American activist who came to the United States in 1989, long before Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, President Hugo Chávez, came into power, described the arrival of subsequent “tides” of Venezuelan immigrants.
“If the problem gets solved,” said Mr. Ackerman, a Republican, “a lot of people are going to go back.”
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers insist that they back Venezuela action on principle, not as an electoral ploy. Yet Democrats saw politics at play this month when Vice President Mike Pence delivered a Venezuela policy speech in Doral — a Miami suburb known as Doralzuela — and did not invite Democratic members of Congress. Then, on Tuesday, Mr. Trump mentioned Venezuela in his State of the Union address and immediately pivoted to a campaign line that seemed to liken Venezuela’s socialist government to liberals in the United States.
“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” he said.
During last year’s midterm elections, Ron DeSantis, the Republican nominee for governor, frequently deployed the word “socialist” against Mr. Gillum, his opponent. The jab, dismissed by Democrats as ridiculous, appeared to stick: Mr. DeSantis won. So did Rick Scott, a Republican who was elected to the Senate after working hard to court Venezuelans, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who typically vote for Democrats.
Florida’s Venezuelan community has a smattering of activists who are the heads of various organizations but no obvious leader — a reflection of an immigrant group still getting established, still up for grabs politically and still glued to the news from home, usually via Twitter posts or forwarded audio files on WhatsApp.
“I’ve been sleeping maybe three hours a night,” said Yusnaiberth Detraux, 44, who described spending hours online scouring for information “until my eyes hurt.”
Ms. Detraux, who left Venezuela 12 years ago and became a United States citizen last year, said she had lost hope until Mr. Guaidó came along, and the United States and its allies in the Western Hemisphere and Europe rallied behind him. Though she leans Republican, Ms. Detraux had not liked Mr. Trump at first. Then he delivered on his promised hard line on Venezuela.
“Thank God we have this president,” she said. “At least he’s listened to us. Unfortunately, the previous administration did not.”
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