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Democrats, Republicans compete to show solidarity with Venezuelan people

The continuing civil unrest in Venezuela has prompted a massive U.S. mobilization — of Florida politicians.

Democrats and Republicans are taking plenty of shots at each other as they try to make themselves look good and sway the state's critical Hispanic voting population.

Politicians are scrambling to get in front of TV cameras and they're flooding social media with tweets, pictures and videos aimed at showing their solidarity with the people of Venezuela — and the growing Venezuelan community in South Florida.

"It's smart politics," said Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies who specializes in politics and voting at Nova Southeastern University. "Democrats and Republicans ... know that the fastest growing segment of the American voting public is Hispanic. And each side is trying to say 'We're your best friend. We're on your side.'"

• On Monday, Democrats grabbed the spotlight.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, home to one of the largest concentrations of Venezuelans in Florida, and U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Miami-Dade Democrat whose district includes many Venezuelans, huddled in Hollywood for a 75-minute, closed-door "listening session" with 30 community leaders.

The pair then held a news conference surrounded by many of those South Florida Venezuelans.

• On Friday, Republicans dominated the news cycle.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is deciding whether to run for re-election or for president in 2016, and Gov. Rick Scott, who polls show is facing a tough re-election this fall, appeared at a rally in Doral, home to another large concentration of Venezuelans.

At the Venezuelan restaurant El Arepazo 2, Rubio and Scott each donned long scarves that combined the Venezuelan and American flags.

Scott and Rubio called on President Barack Obama, whose approval rating is more negative than positive in recent Florida polling, to take tougher, more decisive action. In a video released Sunday, Rubio said Obama "should pronounce himself very clearly that he condemns, in the strongest possible terms" the Venezuelan government. "[U]p to now, all we've heard is that they are 'concerned.'" Scott demanded that Obama show up in Doral to hear what's on the community's mind.

Wasserman Schultz, who is Obama's handpicked chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, countered that "President Obama has been very clear that what is going on in Venezuela is unacceptable."

The back and forth extends from top elected officials to political party operatives.

• "The Florida Democratic Party advocates doing nothing to stand with the people of Venezuela as they are brutalized and persecuted by their own government," said Susan Hepworth, the state Republican Party's communications director.

But Wasserman Schultz said the fault lies with "some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are trying to make this a partisan issue."

Yet only one of the 16 people who accompanied her at the news conference after the "listening session" identified himself as a Republican. Friday's Scott-Rubio event was similarly one-party oriented.

• The Miami-Dade County Republican Party has accused Garcia — who has one of the toughest re-election campaigns in the country according to the big independent, national House race ratings — of being missing on the issue. Garcia was out in front on the issue well before other Democrats, and Wasserman Schultz and Miami-Dade County Democratic Chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein blasted the Republicans for the attack on Garcia for being false.

The flurry of interest from Florida politicians goes beyond attempts to influence American policy toward the South American nation where hundreds of people have been arrested and injured during anti-government protests in recent weeks and at least 17 have been killed.

Right now, the Venezuelan population in South Florida — about 85,000 according to 2012 Census estimates — doesn't translate into a huge number of eligible voters. But in the long run, Zelden said, the number of Venezuelans who become American citizens or are born here, and therefore can vote, will grow. "In a sense, they're investing in future voters."

Leopoldo Martinez, a former Venezuelan politician who used to live in Weston, said efforts in the Venezuelan community haven't been directed toward organizing a political voice in the U.S. He thinks that will come. "When we get to that second stage, I'm not sure when, but I think it will happen. I think both parties see the potential," he said.

Zelden said Republicans have enjoyed political strength for years because of the decades during which many Cuban-Americans regarded the party as the champion of freedom in Cuba and opposition to the Castro regime there.

He said they'd love to replicate that with Venezuelans — something the Democrats don't want to let happen. Each side wants to capture younger voters and establish their brand with people when they cast their first votes, hoping that will translate into a lifetime of support as it did with many first-generation Cuban-Americans.

If Republicans are successful at portraying themselves as the party most concerned about Venezuelans, that could help stem a trend of Hispanics voting Democratic, and offset some negatives for Republicans from the failure of the party on a national level to support comprehensive immigration reform.

Many in the Venezuelan community don't want to get caught in political crossfire between Democrats and Republicans. To them, the crisis in their home country is far more serious than domestic American politics.

"I appreciate the concern that all of them have. [Both parties] have shared their deep concern about the future of democracy in Venezuela and the violation of human rights," said Martinez, who now lives in Washington, D.C., practices international law, and works with the opposition group Mesa de Unidad Democratica, Roundtable of Democratic Unity.

"We do not have a preference. We do not want to become involved in U.S. local politics. We think that both leaderships are showing a significant amount of concern and solidarity."

Marisela Richter, a former Venezuelan journalist who lives in Greenacres in Palm Beach County, said she's been pressing Democrats and Republicans for results, not rhetoric. "Actions talk louder than words, so that's what we want."

Early last week in Palm Beach County, some 50 people rallied outside Rubio's Palm Beach County office. On Friday, community representatives met with aides to U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.

"This goes beyond any electoral campaign. This goes beyond any political affiliation," Richter said. "What is important right now is Venezuela."

Staff writer Doreen Hemlock and staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

aman@tribune.com or 954-356-4550

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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