On his long-awaited first visit to Miami as interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó finally met face-to-face with South Florida's growing Venezuelan diaspora this weekend at the Miami Airport Convention Center. Hope hung in the air alongside fluttering tricolor flags and chants of libertad. A rare juxtaposition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and Venezuela's national anthem, "Gloria al Bravo Pueblo," announced Guaidó's arrival to a stage filled with Florida politicians, including U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and U.S. Reps. Debbie Wassermann Schultz, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala, and Mario Diaz-Balart.
"We have a plan. We have a strategy. We have the world's support. We're not alone. And we will restore democracy," Guaidó told thousands of supporters in attendance, who met him with cheers.
On the tail end of a global tour to gin up support among foreign leaders, Guaidó's visit to South Florida came within days of coinciding with the first anniversary of his tenure as caretaker president of Venezuela. And though there's been no shortage of sound, fury, and sloganeering from the 36-year-old opposition leader and his allies over the past 12 months, the situation in Venezuela remains largely unchanged. Similarly, Saturday's event offered plenty of promotion but little substance.
"Venezuela needs to fight for its identity!"— QuickTake by Bloomberg (@QuickTake) February 1, 2020
Guaidó, who is recognized by the U.S. and some 60 countries as Venezuela’s head of state, is in Miami this evening in what’s likely to be one of the opposition leader’s final stops on a two-week global tour pic.twitter.com/uOBozZ8Log
Venezuela has implausibly slipped even further from a political breakthrough in the past few weeks. Strongman Nicolás Maduro appears more comfortably in control of the South American nation's military and broken legislative and judicial systems than at any other time since Guaidó's ascendancy. The situation for Venezuelans in the United States has not fared much better. Despite messages of solidarity with Venezuela and its people, the U.S. government continues to deport Venezuelans seeking refuge from the Maduro regime. More than 24,000 Venezuelans fought removal from the States at the end of 2019, according to an analysis of immigration court data by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
For many Venezuelans fleeing persecution back home, a deportation order could be as good as a death sentence. For this reason, Venezuelan advocates in South Florida and beyond have pleaded with President Donald Trump and members of Congress to offer temporary deportation protections to Venezuelans already in the United States, but to no avail. A bill offering Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans passed the House last year but died in the GOP-controlled Senate, while Trump officials made clear that TPS for Venezuelans likely won't happen.
At Saturday's event, Congresswoman Mucarsel-Powell, a sponsor of the House TPS bill, used her speech to call out her Republican colleagues, including Senator Scott, who sat only a few steps from the podium.
"I'm still fighting and advocating for President Trump to award TPS to Venezuelans," Mucarsel-Powell told the crowd in Spanish. "I'll take this opportunity, now that many of them are here, to urge once more that [senators] give TPS to Venezuelans."
Congresswomen Shalala and Wasserman Schultz in their speeches also remarked about the importance of TPS for Venezuelans. When it was his turn to speak, Scott made no mention of the program despite chants from some members of the crowd that he support the TPS effort.
#1Feb Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, congresista norteamericana, expresó su respaldo a los venezolanos y afirmó este sábado que seguirá trabajando para lograr la aprobación del TPS. pic.twitter.com/n6J87Ynh10— VPItv (@VPITV) February 1, 2020
For some Venezuelans, disillusionment with how Venezuelan asylum seekers are being treated goes beyond Senate Republicans and Trump. It also includes Guaidó.
"Guaidó could have sent a powerful message by spending more time with local Venezuelan activists and meeting with the hundreds of Venezuelans locked up in immigration prisons," says Carlos Pereira, founder of the Venezuelan American Democratic Club. "Instead, he showed up to take some pictures and left. He has ignored some of the Venezuelans here that need him most."
Pereira is one of several prominent Venezuelan advocates in the Miami area who chose not to attend Saturday's event. Many believe Guaidó's visit was little more than a media stunt. Jose Colina, president of Veppex (an acronym for Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile, in Spanish), says that despite receiving an offer to join a small group of activists for a brief meeting with Guaidó before the event, he declined to attend.
"I didn't go because I don't like wasting my time," Colina says. "There were no solutions offered for what's happening in Venezuela and nothing to help Venezuelans detained in the U.S. We can't exactly qualify it as a successful event."
Pereira and Colina are diametrical opposites when it comes to their preferred solutions to the crisis in Venezuela. Pereira is opposed to economic sanctions and favors diplomacy as a way to negotiate an ouster of the Maduro regime, while Colina is in favor of military intervention by the United States and other countries. But they agree in their disillusionment with Guaidó, who admitted Saturday that the opposition had made "mistakes" in its attempts to oust Maduro.
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An estimated 200,000 Venezuelans reside in Florida — enough to fill Hard Rock Stadium three times over. However, the crowd at the convention center appeared to be at less than half of the venue's 9,000-person capacity. The low attendance was likely driven in part by lousy weather and traffic caused by Super Bowl weekend, but Colina thinks wavering support for Guaidó also played a part. Of even larger concern, however, is the possibility that support for the opposition leader might be wavering in the White House.
Getting a little exercise this morning! pic.twitter.com/fyAAcbhbgk— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 1, 2020
As Guaidó readied for Saturday's meeting, Trump tweeted a photo of himself golfing at his West Palm Beach resort. The tweet no doubt caused frustration among Guaidó's camp, which was unable to secure a meeting with the president during Guaidó's stop in the U.S. Rumors swirled that Trump might make a surprise appearance at Saturday's rally, but that didn't happen. While U.S. officials and legislators claim to remain steadfast in their support of Venezuelans, Trump's interest in the nation's crisis appears to have dimmed after a massive political push last year, when the United States was the first of more than 55 countries around the world to recognize Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela. The United States has since placed new sanctions on Maduro, his allies, and the state-run Venezuelan oil company, PDVSA.
During his global tour, Guaidó met with Colombian President Ivan Duque, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and other leaders. While in Colombia, Guaidó also met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Guaidó said he plans to return to Venezuela in the coming days; he risks imprisonment upon arrival for having violated a travel ban when he left the country last month.