Pence Visits Florida to Make a Lesson of Socialist Venezuela

(Bloomberg) -- As socialism gains traction among left-leaning Democrats, Republicans are turning stricken Venezuela into a cautionary tale.

Vice President Mike Pence arrived to give a Venezuela policy speech on Friday in Florida -- a seat of anti-socialist sentiment since the Cuban Revolution. The move was at once a high-profile riposte to rising liberal Democrats like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an attempt to make inroads in America’s largest swing state and a move to further pressure strongman President Nicolas Maduro, who is clinging to power.

“When the dictator came to power six long years ago, he promised to deliver an agenda of socialism,” Pence told the crowd at a church in Doral, a Miami-area city with a large Venezuelan population. “Sadly for the Venezuelan people, Maduro did just that.”

The White House’s move last week to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful head of state is likely to be popular in Florida, a magnet for Venezuelans who fled Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. The word “socialism” has long carried added power here, and Governor Ron DeSantis just got elected, in part, by warning that his left-leaning Democratic challenger wanted to turn the Sunshine State into another Venezuela.

“Venezuela matters a lot down here,” said Brian Fonseca, director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. “And I know that there is no doubt Florida politics is part of this. 2020 is right around the corner, and Florida is a very important swing state; it always has been.”

Potential Democratic presidential candidates and the party as a whole have been debating policies such as expanding Medicare, the health program for elderly and disabled people, to cover all Americans; stiffer taxes on the rich and a “Green New Deal” to combat the effects of climate change.

“A lot of what the Democratic candidates are proposing is closer to socialist policy than any other major policy proposals we’ve seen in the last 20 or 30 years,” said Lanhee Chen, head of Stanford University’s domestic policy studies program and former policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “A confiscatory wealth tax, a single-payer health system -- these are all things you would find in a socialist country, quite frankly.”

Many other democracies operate substantially single-payer health systems, including Canada and the U.K., and impose higher tax rates than the U.S., where rates are low relative to most of the developed world.

Common Cause

Using Venezuela, which was brought low by ruinous mismanagement and a plunge in oil prices, as a socialist exemplar could be a potent message in South Florida. Venezuelan exiles often see themselves as kindred souls with the Cuban- and Nicaraguan-American communities, which left behind their own socialist strongmen. The strength of their collective community suggests there’s more to Republican strategy than simply courting Venezuelans’ hypothetical future votes, especially since many still aren’t citizens.

Gustavo Garagorry, 52, was in the crowd as Pence arrived, standing by the tarmac in a Venezuela flag jacket. Garagorry, who identified himself as president of the Venezuelan American Republican Club of Miami Dade, said he “absolutely” felt united with Cubans and Nicaraguans.

“Together we reject that socialism,” he said. “We want democracy. We want liberty. We want capitalism and for things to work right.”

To be sure, Democrats support the general drift of Trump’s policy on Venezuela, too. The administration’s move has been seen by many as a so-far nonviolent attempt to defend democracy in the Western Hemisphere. Under Maduro, democratic institutions have deteriorated, the economy has collapsed, hyperinflation has taken hold and food and medicine have grown scarce, pushing the exile community to about 3 million across the globe.

“I don’t see this as primarily a political issue," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president at the Council of the Americas. “Sure, it may play well, but the primary motivation I believe is one of trying to relieve humanitarian distress.”

Little Caracas

Many Venezuelan exiles have fled to the Miami area. As of mid-2017, the latest figures, Florida’s three biggest counties alone -- Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach -- had an estimated 124,244 Venezuela-born residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. But the number could be significantly greater already, given the emigration since then that has also sent refugees pouring into Colombia, Peru and Brazil, among other destinations.

Even if those coming to the U.S. could vote, that’s not enough to counter, for instance, the more than a million Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans now in the state, a population that grew in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017. But Florida elections are typically decided by razor-thin margins.

Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, also spoke Friday with former Venezuelan politicians and a political prisoner, among others from the exile community.

Protests have mounted in Venezuela and Maduro has orchestrated a violent crackdown since the U.S. recognized Guaido as president.

Brother Fidel

Pence, who has taken a leading role in formulating the U.S.’s Venezuela policy, was accompanied by DeSantis, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio -- a quartet of Florida Republicans that was conspicuously present at the White House on Jan. 22, a day before President Donald Trump took the extraordinary step of recognizing Guaido, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the rightful head of state.

It’s not clear how a Democratic president would have responded to the steep deterioration of conditions in Venezuela. But speaking at the airport just prior to Pence’s arrival, Diaz-Balart suggested Trump’s policy toward Venezuela marked a stark departure from President Barack Obama’s. He said Obama, who oversaw a rapprochement toward Cuba, was therefore responsible for strengthening the regime in Venezuela.

“Any measure to strengthen the Cuban dictatorship strengthens the Venezuelan dictatorship,” he said.

Maduro and his predecessor, Chavez, often cited the influence of their “brother" Fidel Castro as they seized businesses and cracked down on opposition.

Chen, the Stanford professor, said the crisis abroad adds up to opportunity at home for the GOP.

“It’s a nice contrast between all of these issues -- Venezuela and whatever’s on the domestic agenda here in the U.S. -- a nice set of comparisons for Republicans to be able to make with Democrats,” he said.

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