Over cornbread sandwiches and cold beer, the Friday evening conversation at El Arepazo in Doral would quicken the pulse of any Latin American exile in Florida. The tables hum with tales of imminent economic collapse, an imploding government and a new scandal involving senior officials and drug trafficking.
The restaurant’s patrons, however, are not the Cuban exiles who have played such an outsized role in the state’s politics for the past five decades. They are much newer arrivals from Venezuela who are also beginning to make their influence felt on US policy.
A day after the historic announcement by Barack Obama in December that the US wanted to normalise relations with Cuba— potentially ending more than 50 years of economic embargo — the US president signed a law that for the first time imposed sanctions on members of the government in Caracas. This week, the state department announced a new round of visa bans on Venezuelan officials that Washington says are responsible for rights abuses.
At the moment, when hardline views against Cuba’s communist regime appear to be losing resonance in American politics, Florida-based Venezuelans are using many of the same tactics and rhetoric to influence the way the US deals with their home country.
When the Venezuelan sanctions law was first proposed, the Obama administration was strongly opposed, arguing it could become a propaganda boon for the Caracas government.
But the US president’s decision to sign the law followed an aggressive lobbying campaign from Florida’s Venezuelan community, which has swelled in numbers in the past decade, as well as from Cuban-American politicians who have taken up their cause as their own.
“Cuba and now Venezuela are not foreign policy issues in the US, they are domestic issues,” explains José Hernández, editor-in-chief of El Venezolano, a newspaper for expats, and executive secretary in Miami of MUD, the opposition political group. “[US] politicians now know that, depending on what they do about Venezuela, there will be a lot of voters either for them or against them.”
The Venezuelan lobby has grown from almost nothing. In 2000, when George W Bush narrowly won Florida with the support of 75 per cent of the Cuban community, only a few hundred Venezuelans voted. By 2011, the US Census Bureau estimated there were 259,000 people of Venezuelan origin in the US, mostly in southern Florida. That is still much smaller than the Cuban community of 2m people, but big enough to be politically relevant in a state with a history of razor-close elections.
The inflow of migrants — mostly well-to-do Venezuelans disenchanted with the socialism of former president Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro, his successor — has tracked Miami’s changing geography, with many moving into the new suburbs that sprang up during the property boom. This includes Doral, now a city in its own right nicknamed Doral-zuela because of the number of Venezuelans living there. The El Arepazo restaurant has become a focal point for the city’s Venezuelan community. Doral even won the right to host last month’s Miss Universe contest, which has strong ties to Venezuela because its entrants have traditionally performed well in the beauty pageant.
While many Miami Cubans have mellowed over the years as second and third-generation migrants have come to the fore, the Venezuelan community is shaped by the fierce anti-Chávez views of first-generation arrivals.
“If we put Chávez on the front page, many readers will send the newspaper back,” says Mr Hernandez. “When Chávez died, we ran a photo and lots of people were really angry. I said, ‘what am I supposed to do? He is dead. It’s a big news story’.”
Ernesto Ackerman, who moved to the US 25 years ago, was one of the first to try to turn the growing number of migrants into a political influence. “The Cubans were very smart, they got involved in local politics at an early stage,” says the business owner, who founded the group Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens.
Before long, the Venezuelans began to attract the attention of the same Florida politicians who had been the loudest supporters of the Cuba embargo. Marco Rubio, the Cuban-US senator, is a regular at political events at El Arepazo, while the sanctions bill was introduced by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuba-born congresswoman whose district includes the Miami neighbourhood of Little Havana.
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University, says the sanctions show how the Miami Venezuelans are already helping to shape US policy. “Sanctions are counter-productive because they help the Venezuelan government distract people from its own shortcomings,” he says, adding they also “undercut the ability of critics to portray Obama as soft on Latin American dictators”.
Washington’s approach to Venezuela and Cuba remain different. Cuba has been subject to a long and wide-ranging economic embargo, while the Venezuela sanctions are much narrower, aimed at preventing named individuals from visiting the US.
Despite this, Mr Ackerman — and the Venezuelan diners at El Arepazo — have vowed to continue to pressure the Obama administration to add new names to the sanctions list. “We do not want to harm the Venezuelan economy,” he says, “but we want to make sure President Obama does not forget about Venezuela.”
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