DORAL, Fla. – The emigres who gather at El Arepazo restaurant to gossip, drink, and conspire are a familiar local type: combative and obsessed with changing the regime at home.
But while Miami Cubans have a long tradition of shaping U.S. foreign policy toward their island, these new emigres are Venezuelan. And their goal is to impose the sort of isolation on the leftist government in Caracas with which Washington has tried — and failed — for half a century to end Communism in Cuba.
They have, so far, been successful: The people who assemble here below a statue of Simon Bolivar are regulars in the local and national media, and they have helped push a bill imposing sanctions on associates of President Nicolas Maduro through the key committees in both the House and Senate. This week, it'll arrive in the House of Representatives with the strong backing of a local congresswoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
She is one of a handful of key Cuban-American lawmakers championing the sanctions, and applying a distinctly Cuban-American outlook to the latest ideological conflict in Latin America. Others include Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz Balart. A number of Venezuelan expat leaders have strong ties to veterans of the Cuban exile, and there is a clear and strong affinity between the two groups, beginning with their sense of outrage at having been displaced by leftist regimes — though Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his successor, Maduro, never seized the sort of monopoly on political power that has long held in the Castros' Cuba.
The Miami Venezuelans' growing influence was in evidence on Saturday night at El Arepazo, when some 70 Venezuelans gathered for a vigil in support of the protesting students. The meeting had been called by José Antonio Colina, a former lieutenant of the Venezuelan national guard who fled the country after the Chávez government accused him of bombing two embassies in Caracas. (Colina has consistently denied the charges, and calls them politically motivated.)
But while most of the gathering was consumed by impassioned speeches that, in Spanish, condemned Maduro's regime, the events have also become a focus for American politics. A tea party candidate for Congress, Joe Kaufman, turned up to denounce President Obama for "ignoring this situation."
"I call on the administration to do something about this. Stop making excuses!" he said.
"We have senators calling us for meetings," José Hernandez, the leader of the U.S. branch of Venezuela's coalition of opposition parties, said in Spanish. "That didn't used to happen. We have representatives coming to El Arepazo to get their picture taken with us. That didn't used to happen."
As Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who introduced the sanctions bill in the House, put it: "The Venezuelan-American community has already made an impact on politics in South Florida, and that's an impact that will only grow stronger as time goes on."
There were about 250,000 Venezuelans living in the United States in 2012, according to census data, of which almost 65,000 are American citizens. But what defines the population is not its size but its political cohesion: The vast majority of Venezuelan immigrants have arrived in one way or another as a consequence of the rise to power of Hugo Chávez, whose regime was marked by aggressive wealth redistribution, expropriations of private enterprise, and other measures that negatively impacted the wealthier sectors of Venezuelan society.
"Compared to, say, Mexicans or Dominicans or other Latino populations, these are almost exclusively people from the middle class and upper middle class," said David Smilde, a senior fellow and Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America and a professor at the University of Georgia. "This is a diaspora of people who are very anti-Chávez and now anti-Maduro, whose interests have been touched upon, who fear the rise of a dictatorship, or who have been victims of some kind of political persecution."
The largest proportion of Venezuelans settled in South Florida, mostly in the cities of Doral and Weston. Doral, like many of Miami's outer rings, is a sprawling, semi-industrial suburb of car dealerships, shipping warehouses, and the occasional field of grazing cattle. The city was named after a golf resort, now owned by Donald Trump, that existed decades before the city incorporated in 2003. The mayor of Doral, Luigi Boria, is also the first and so far the only Venezuelan-American mayor of a U.S. city.
While Doral was named after a golf course, Weston, some 30 minutes away in Broward County, actually resembles one. The streets are unsettlingly well-paved and the lawns well-manicured, and the town is dotted with small, manmade lakes spouting water into the air from fountains.
Maria Antonietta Diaz arrived in Weston with her family in 1997, a year before Chávez came to power. They moved after her father was kidnapped for ransom by nonpolitically motivated criminals, and the family decided Venezuela was too dangerous a place to raise children. At the time there were very few Venezuelans in Florida, but within a few years Diaz witnessed the beginnings of an exodus. She saw it from a uniquely good perch: By then she had started a consulting company that helped Venezuelans form businesses in the U.S.
It started with a wave of former oil executives, who fled to the U.S. after workers from the state oil company staged a massive but ultimately failed strike in 2002 to protest Chávez's tightened grip on the company. Subsequent waves of migrants included people from every major industry: finance and banking, construction and real estate, imports and exports. "It was exodus after exodus," Diaz said in Spanish. "We're talking about industrialists: people who ran businesses with 500,000 or 600,000 employees, and who had run them for 40 years. We're talking about people with money."
Diaz, like nearly every Venezuelan expat, characterized this as a cataclysm for Venezuela: "Chávez effectively eliminated the productive apparatus of Venezuelan society."
This high-powered diaspora supported the Venezuelan opposition from afar, mobilized to vote in Venezuelan elections, and did some lobbying in the U.S. — pushing for the country to buy less Venezuelan oil, for example. But by and large they focused on their stateside ventures, becoming more of a corporate bloc than a political one.
The exception was a small cadre of opposition hardliners, many of whom could not return to Venezuela without fear of imprisonment — the small group, in other words, that could rightfully claim the label "exile." Prominent among them was Colina, the former National Guard lieutenant accused of bombing embassies in Venezuela. Born and raised in a poor Caracas neighborhood, Colina is unlike the characteristic Venezuelan expat. "Why do chavistas hate me? Because I meet every condition to be a chavista myself," Colina said. "I'm black — I'm a minority. I come from the lower classes. I was a military official. But I never supported Chávez."
Colina fled to Miami through Colombia with the help of right-wing paramilitary groups. In Miami, he founded VEPPEX, or Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile, and started agitating for regime change in his home country.
For a long time the work was thankless. "What we're seeing today is the result of many years of work," Colina said. "For a long time we have talked about the presence of drug traffickers in Venezuela, the presence of the Irani regime, the presence of extremist groups. We were like a scratched record, and we presented plenty of proof, but these were things the international community did not want to look at closely. Now they are looking at it closely."
Colina attributes the shift to the death of Chávez and the coming to power of Nicolás Maduro: Chávez was a charismatic leader and had strong control over the military and police, whereas Maduro is weak and has allowed the violent repression of the student protesters to get out of control. "He has zero charisma," Colina said. "He's not even a leader. He's a stooge of the Castro brothers. So now we see a much more anarchic society, a more resistant people, and we also see more repression that probably wouldn't have happened under Chávez."
But other members of the Venezuelan expat community think the growing degree of attention has as much to do with an organized lobbying effort focused more insistently on the political leverage of Venezuelans in the U.S., and on building stronger liaisons with the powerful Cuban-American political establishment.
This is the approach advocated by Ernesto Ackerman, who has lived in Florida since the late '80s and who owns a company in Doral that manufactures and exports medical equipment to Latin America. Like Diaz, Ackerman is the rare outlier among Venezuelan expats: a pre-Chavez migrant. He, however, moved purely in search of economic opportunities. "I liked the American capitalist system," he said, "so I put my family on a plane and moved here."
Ackerman, a U.S. citizen who drives a white pickup with a Marco Rubio campaign bumper sticker, was largely responsible for organizing a caravan of more than a thousand Venezuelans to D.C. this month, compelling Representative Ros-Lehtinen and others to push the sanctions bill forward. Through Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, a group he founded in 2003, Ackerman leads citizenship drives among Venezuelans in Florida and coordinates various lobbying efforts.
"The problem is that Venezuelans for a long time didn't understand that we need to get involved in local politics," Ackerman said in Spanish.
Unlike Colina and other hardline exiles, Ackerman has no intention of returning to Venezuela — save, perhaps, for extended vacations in a post-Maduro world. Venezuelans like him, Ackerman says, are a sleeping lion, and they constitute the majority of the expat community.
"Remember that George W. Bush won the election with 500 votes [in Florida]. I was one of those 500 votes," he said.
For now, at least when it comes to American elections, those Venezuelan votes appear to be up for grabs. More Venezuelans in Florida voted for Obama than Romney in 2012, and yet — anecdotally, at least — they tend to support Republicans in Congress like Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen. Ackerman's group frequently polls Venezuelans in Florida, and he says a good 65% of them remain unaffiliated with any party, with the rest evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
But Ackerman expects that the recent trip to Washington, plus the ongoing push for sanctions, will prove a turning point: Along with the Obama administration's reluctance to impose the sanctions, those who have opposed the bill in Congress have been Democrats. "The trip badly damaged the Democratic Party," Ackerman said.
Finally, there is the fact that the bulk of those Venezuelans organizing for political action in the United States, people like Ackerman, are aligned with the Republicans. "Look, I can go to a congressman's office and say, I have 15 votes in your district," Ackerman added. "But those 15 people have families. We're talking about 70, 80 people who are going to be talking about you, good or bad. That's the work we have to do."
"Like the Cubans did," Ackerman added. "The Cubans were very smart."