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How Venezuelans Could Reshape Elections in Florida

As the diaspora grows in key districts, Republicans and Democrats eye newcomers as a powerful new voting bloc.
venezuela
Venezuelans in Florida line up to vote in an opposition referendum on Jul. 16
RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images

As an engineer, Jorge Pacheco never expected his job would make him the target of political persecution. But as Venezuela’s finances floundered and its public services deteriorated, the Venezuelan government blamed engineers at the state-owned electrical provider CORPOELEC for power grid disruptions. As political persecution became more common, the young man made the difficult choice to move to the U.S.

“If I had stayed, I may have been charged with sabotage or subversion,” explained Pacheco, who left Venezuela with his family in 2015. “We had to sell everything – cars, appliances, clothes – just to afford the trip.”

“Still, we are very lucky to be here,” he said. “I have coworkers who were put in jail.”

Pacheco, who withheld his real name for fear of retribution against family members still in Venezuela, went to Miami and applied for asylum. Once he settled there, he found a vast community already in place. There were 248,000 Venezuelans living in the U.S. according to the 2013 census; 104,000 of them were in South Florida. That number has since spiked. Venezuelans fleeing economic and political turmoil now lead all nationalities for U.S. asylum requests and, as of 2016, are second only to Brazil for visa overstays.

In sharp contrast to recent arrivals from other nations, this growing diaspora has been welcomed by the American conservative media and the mostly Republican representatives who control key South Florida congressional districts. It’s easy to see why: Florida’s Cuban-Americans and their new Venezuelan neighbors have much in common, including a staunch opposition to the leftist authoritarian regime in their homeland. Cuban-Americans formed for decades a solidly Republican voting bloc in the nation’s largest swing state, and it is tempting to cast Venezuelans in that mold.

“Like Cubans in the past, Venezuelans are leaving their country for political reasons,” said Mario Elgarresta, a political consultant in South Florida and Latin America. “They are definitely looking for a hard line against the Maduro regime.”

Their experience at home shaped the political experiences of many, seeming to align them with Republican values. Patricia Andrade from Raíces Venezolanas, a Doral, Florida-based nonprofit that helps Venezuelan newcomers get settled, has heard these perspectives often.

“Venezuelans are believers in democracy and frightened by anything related to leftism, communism and dictatorship,” said Andrade.

Due to their shared views, Republican politicians from Florida have been the most active in supporting Venezuelan asylum seekers and immigrants. In April 2017, Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Rep. Darren Soto introduced bipartisan legislation that would provide pre-2013 arrivals from Venezuela the opportunity to apply for permanent residency status.

Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio reached out to the White House to revalidate the asylum application of Marco Coello, a tortured opposition activist who was at risk of deportation. This support even precedes Venezuela’s current crisis: In 2012, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking for fairer treatment of Venezuelans requesting asylum.

Rubio, an important voice pushing for the Trump administration’s recent sanctions against Venezuela, said in a 2014 speech that the country looks “more and more like Cuba economically and politically every single day.”

“What they want is what we have, the freedom and the liberty,” he said.

To that, Ros-Lehtinen added recently, “The United States will continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Venezuela and the rightful leaders of the National Assembly.”

However, as the Venezuelan community grows and more become U.S. citizens, they may defy Republican expectations and the Cuban model.

To start, although the number of U.S. asylum applications from Venezuelans has skyrocketed with the onset of the economic crisis in 2014, many have arrived without proof of persecution, the central criteria to qualify for asylum. This means many may not be allowed to stay and to become a new voting bloc – although that picture is changing. More than a hundred days of protests and an increase in repression means many incoming Venezuelans have stronger cases and therefore better paths to citizenship.

Andrade, who heads the Doral-based non-profit, has followed this development up close.

“Most people that arrive through my center today have suffered political persecution of various types,” she told AQ.

There is growing evidence, however, that Venezuelans will not conform to this historical parallel. Christian Ulvert, a public affairs consultant from Miami-based Edge Communications, sees Venezuelans as multi-issue voters, leaning left on social and economic issues and, therefore, “more aligned with non-Cuban Hispanics and young Cubans” who voted Democrat in prior elections.

In fact, Venezuelans are already politically significant in contested congressional districts of Miami-Dade County, where they’ve been embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. District 27, held by Ros-Lehtinen, hosts a Venezuelan community that made up 10 percent of its voting population in 2015. In Districts 25 and 23, held by Diaz-Balart and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 5 percent of voters that same year were Venezuelan-American.

Also, Venezuelans have noticed that Republicans can play along with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s administration when it is expedient, Ulvert said, referring to a $500,000 donation from a PDVSA affiliate to Trump’s Inaugural Committee.

Demographic factors, particularly in educational attainment, also suggest that Venezuelans may be unique as an immigrant group. More than half of Venezuelans in the U.S. age 25 and older hold at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Cuban-Americans register at 25 percent and the American average is 30 percent. Higher education strongly favored Democrats in the 2016 presidential elections.

Although current immigration continues to bring Venezuelans of educated backgrounds, many are living in precarious conditions, unable to work legally until their asylum requests are approved. Andrade, whose nonprofit helps some 100 immigrants a day, finds that Venezuelans are arriving with no more than a few hundred dollars in their pockets. These immigrants are starting to be called “balseros del aire,” a reference to Cubans that left the island on rafts during the 1990s.

Pacheco, for example, has taken up informal construction work to sustain himself and his family. Having arrived at the brink of homelessness, he now shares a one bedroom unit with his wife and child. He has little time for politics – his focus is on making a new home for his family.

“We are mostly concerned with completing the asylum process,” he said.

The role he and others in his community will play once they can participate in American elections may be far from his mind. But with Ros-Lehtinen retiring in 2018 and Wasserman-Schultz barely winning her reelection, he may soon have a significant role in U.S. electoral outcomes.

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Rabellino is an editorial intern for AQ

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Venezuela, diaspora

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