Immigration, taxes, and health care matter, but a foreign-policy issue has taken center stage.
by Jonathan Blitzer
One afternoon last February, Donald Trump stood at a lectern at Florida International University, in Miami, and before a cheering crowd of a thousand called President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela a “dictator” and a “Cuban puppet.” Trump was flanked by two enormous flags, Venezuelan and American, and the word Democracia flashed on a screen behind him. Chants in Spanish alternated between thanking Trump (“We’re with you!”) and taunting Maduro (“He’s already fallen!”). “It was like a rock concert,” Rafael Fernandez, who left Venezuela nearly two decades ago, told me.
The Trump Administration had recently instituted sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company, which supplies the overwhelming majority of the government’s budget, and more than fifty countries, including the U.S., now recognized the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate President. Trump had also floated the possibility of a military intervention. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, who is influential on Latin-American issues, claimed that high-ranking officers in the Venezuelan military were poised to defect. Addressing those who weren’t, Trump warned, “You will find no safe harbor, no easy exit, and no way out. You’ll lose everything.”
Fernandez was in the audience with his father, Francisco. The two argued constantly about Trump. Rafael told me that he was “more pro-Trump than anti.” His father, a former Venezuelan politician, is a lifelong conservative, but when he voted for the first time in an American election, in 2016, it was for Hillary Clinton; he despised Trump.
Francisco’s sentiments were rare among his neighbors in Doral, a small city of strip malls and golf courses west of Miami. There are more than two hundred thousand Venezuelans in Florida, more than anywhere else in the country, and the majority live in the Doral area. Many of them are recent arrivals—some four million people have left Venezuela in the past four years, ten per cent of the country’s population. The exodus began after Maduro was elected, in 2013, when, in response to dwindling oil prices and economic mismanagement, the government tried to stave off collapse by printing more money. Earlier this year, with inflation close to two million per cent, a bottle of ketchup cost nine dollars, but a minimum-wage job paid about six dollars a month. Maduro has responded to public protests by jailing and killing dissenters; death squads aligned with the government have assassinated at least seven thousand people in the past year and a half. Condemnation of Maduro has been widespread in the U.S. and other countries, but no one has denounced the regime as aggressively as Trump has. In Doral, Rafael said, “you were a pariah if you didn’t support Trump.”
Rafael, who is twenty-eight, manages a car dealership, and he and his father run a Web site called Bienvenidos Venezolanos. They created it eight years ago as an advice hub for Venezuelans in Florida, with links to immigration lawyers, job postings, and real-estate listings. It’s a low-budget operation, with a single full-time employee, but by the end of last year, when Venezuelans were responsible for the largest share of asylum applications in American immigration courts, the site was getting five thousand hits a day.
Rafael said that, at the rally, anticipating Maduro’s downfall, “we were thinking, We could be free next month.” When Trump promised a “new day” in Latin America, asserting that “all options are open,” Rafael looked at his father, who had tears in his eyes. “Oh, my God,” Francisco said. “It’s happening.”
Only a small percentage of the recently arrived Venezuelans are eligible to vote, but many Latin Americans in Florida see the Venezuelan government as the nexus of the region’s worst problems. The repressive socialist leaders in Cuba and Nicaragua depend on Venezuela for oil and for political support. Colombia, which borders Venezuela, has taken in more than a million refugees. “If you solve the Venezuela problem, you get three for the price of one,” a state Republican operative told me. “You’ll make the Colombians, Nicaraguans, and Cubans in Florida very happy.”
In every Presidential election since 1992, the winner of Florida has gone on to the White House. Trump won the state, which has a population of twenty-one million, by a hundred and thirteen thousand votes. He’s since made it the centerpiece of his reëlection effort, launching his campaign in Orlando and making frequent visits to South Florida to deliver major addresses on Cuba and Venezuela. Local politicians call Interstate 4, which runs between Tampa and Daytona Beach, “The road to the White House.”
“Florida elections always come down to margins,” Frank Mora, a professor of politics at F.I.U., told me. The 2018 races for governor and the Senate were each decided by less than half of a percentage point. In South Florida, which has diverse and overlapping voting blocs, candidates try to win votes in sympathetic constituencies and limit the damage in others. In and around Miami, seven hundred thousand Cubans are eligible to vote, along with a hundred and sixty thousand Colombians, eighty thousand Nicaraguans, and some fifty thousand Venezuelans. “Foreign policy is intensely local in South Florida,” Mora said. Most of the diaspora communities in the state have fled socialist dictatorships. Republicans, and especially Trump, have seized on this fact to relentlessly attack left-wing populists in Central and South America. “The Trump Administration’s Latin America policy has become all about Florida,” a former State Department official told me.
Less than a week after Trump’s speech, the White House and Guaidó, convinced that Maduro was on the verge of falling, attempted to deliver nearly two hundred metric tons of food and medicine to Venezuela by way of checkpoints along the border with Brazil and Colombia, in a push that they hoped would break the will of Maduro’s supporters. The Venezuelan military blocked the shipments and sealed the border. Few officers defected. In April, Guaidó called for a military uprising—the “final phase,” he said, of the attempt to oust Maduro—but it never materialized. Two months later, when Trump returned to Florida to speak to campaign donors at the country club he owns in Doral, the regime was still in power. He didn’t mention Venezuela.
“The situation was hot at the time of the rally,” Rafael Fernandez told me recently. “Now the streets are cold.” These days, Trump’s promise of action in Venezuela rarely comes up at social gatherings; Rafael’s friends and family prefer to avoid it. “ ‘All the options are on the table.’ That’s what we heard, even though they aren’t on the fucking table,” he said.
“For the Trump Administration, Plan A was that the military would come in and save the day,” Mora told me. “They don’t have a Plan B or C.”
The Latino electorate is younger, more numerous, and more diverse than ever before, with largely progressive views on health-care and social-justice issues. These trends should work in favor of the Democrats. Still, the Presidential election is more than a year away, and disaffection with Republicans is hardly a guarantee of Democratic votes. Florida Democrats remain bitterly divided over how they lost statewide races in 2018, and many have complained that the national Party leadership is not investing enough resources in voter-outreach and registration efforts. In an Op-Ed in the Times, Andrea Cristina Mercado, the head of the progressive group New Florida Majority, warned that the Democrats “assume demography is destiny and think their policies speak for themselves.”
This spring, the President’s national-security adviser at the time, John Bolton, announced new sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, claiming that “the troika of tyranny” was “beginning to crumble.” “If the President wins 2020, the Venezuelan policy will have been successful,” a former Administration official said. “No matter how many Venezuelans are scattered to the winds.”
Meetings of the Venezuelan American Republican Club of Miami-Dade County begin with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. One night in late June, a group of thirty people dressed in cocktail attire stood with their hands on their hearts in the back room of a Cuban restaurant in Doral which was decorated with photographs of Old Havana. I’d been invited by the club’s vice-president, Kennedy Bolívar. Short and barrel-chested, Bolívar is a former union leader in Caracas. He fled to the U.S. in 2010, and worked in construction in New York before moving to Miami and applying for asylum. He will become a U.S. citizen next year, in time to vote in the 2020 elections. Bolívar helps organize press conferences and town-hall-style meetings for the Venezuelan opposition, when it visits Washington, and for the Trump Administration, when it visits Florida. He pulled out his phone to show me photographs of himself posing with Guaidó and Vice-President Mike Pence. “We have a semantic problem with Venezuelans arriving in the U.S.,” he told me. “People associate Democrats with democracy. We have to tell them, ‘No, there are two parties that work within the U.S. democratic system.’ ” The club’s president, Gustavo Garagorry, added, “Trump is the king of democracy!”
A few miles away, the Democrats were holding the first debate of the Presidential primaries, and the club had asked two guests to offer a preëmptive rebuttal: Luciano Suárez, the Cuban-born, octogenarian vice-mayor of West Miami, and David Rivera, a Cuban-American former U.S. congressman. The words of the pledge were the only ones uttered in English all night. Suárez, bald and bespectacled, in a white guayabera, took the microphone first, playing the role of elder statesman. “This isn’t about Florida,” he said, as waiters distributed baskets of fried plantains. “It’s about preventing the spread of socialism in the region. If you’ve got a friend who’s Colombian, or Nicaraguan, and they say they’re a Democrat, take them aside and say, ‘Listen, this is about democracy.’ ” The candidates who would be taking the debate stage, he said, were “socialists disguised as Democrats.”
The Republicans’ approach to Venezuelan immigrants builds on a relationship they’ve been cultivating with Cuban-Americans since the nineteen-sixties. Between the Cuban Revolution, in 1959, and the mid-seventies, hundreds of thousands of Cubans came to Florida, fleeing the Castro regime. They thought that they’d go home after Fidel Castro fell, but he remained in power until he died, in 2016, at which point he was replaced by his brother, Raúl. By the early eighties, local Cuban leaders had begun organizing voter-registration drives in South Florida under the slogan “Vote So That They Respect Us.” Republicans courted them as the party of anti-Communism and free enterprise. The Party also capitalized on a history of Democratic betrayals, typified by the Bay of Pigs, in 1961, in which John F. Kennedy sent a battalion of Cuban émigrés to overthrow Castro—then, when the invasion foundered, abandoned them in order to deny American involvement. “Kennedy is still the No. 2 most hated man in Miami,” the Cuban émigré Raul Masvidal said, in 1985, while running for mayor of the city. “Castro is of course the No. 1.” Within a decade, nearly seventy per cent of Cuban-Americans were registered Republicans.
“Venezuela is the gateway to the Cuban electorate,” Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Miami, told me. Since 2000, Venezuela has supplied Cuba with some twenty-one billion dollars’ worth of oil; in return, in 2008, the Castros began supplying Venezuela with Cuban intelligence agents, to monitor its military and to quell political opponents. In 2017, Maduro thanked Cuba publicly for this assistance. “The fall of Venezuela represents the fall of the Cuban regime,” the Republican operative told me. “Cubans have waited their whole lives for this. For them, Venezuela is personal.”
At the meeting of the Venezuelan American Republican Club, Rivera gave a selective recounting of everything that the Republican Party had done over the years for South Florida’s Latin-American constituencies: In Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan supported the Contras in their war against the Sandinistas. George W. Bush expanded Plan Colombia, a security-and-anti-drug initiative popular among the country’s conservatives. And yet, Rivera said, without the efforts of groups such as the club he was addressing, it was far from assured that the diaspora communities would remember their debts. “It’s the same with the Venezuelan vote,” he said. “The fact that Trump has sanctioned Diosdado Cabello”—a member of Maduro’s inner circle—“and that he’s elevated Guaidó. That’s not enough.”
The Democratic candidates on the debate stage made a point of proving how progressive they were on immigration. With a show of hands, they supported providing medical coverage to the undocumented and decriminalizing border crossings, proposals that fall well to the left of past Party consensus. Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, and Julián Castro attempted a few phrases in Spanish. (“Cervantes would have laughed. Or cried,” the Miami Herald wrote.) But none of them mentioned Venezuela. Democrats in Florida have pushed for the Trump Administration to extend a form of legal relief, known as Temporary Protected Status, to some two hundred thousand Venezuelan refugees in the U.S., but the President has refused. Not a single Democrat on the debate stage talked about T.P.S. for Venezuelans. In the candidates’ eagerness to satisfy their party’s progressive base on immigration policy, they seemed to be forgetting that one reason they’d come to Florida was to actually address the state’s immigrants.
On a humid afternoon, I met Fabio Andrade, a Colombian-American Republican strategist, at a Panera Bread in a Doral strip mall. Last year, Andrade worked on Ron DeSantis’s successful gubernatorial campaign, and he is now a consultant for the Republican Party on Latino outreach. In 2018, across Miami-Dade County, DeSantis and his predecessor, Rick Scott, who ran for Senate, outperformed Trump, mostly because of their strong showing among Cuban-Americans; turnout among previously registered voters, who are often older and more likely to vote Republican, outpaced new registrations. Andrade told me that older Cuban-Americans had been at the center of DeSantis’s strategy in Miami-Dade, where he won seventy per cent of the Cuban vote. According to polling by a team at F.I.U., Cuban-Americans who came to the U.S. before 1980 supported DeSantis over his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, by a margin of eighty-four per cent to fifteen per cent; those who were born in the U.S. supported him by a margin of only fifty-one per cent to forty-eight per cent. (DeSantis won over all by four-tenths of a percentage point.)
DeSantis played on older Cubans’ resentment of President Obama, who, in 2014, began the process of normalizing relations with Cuba and, two years later, visited the country and appeared alongside Raúl Castro, making him the first sitting American President to set foot on the island since the nineteen-twenties. “For Cubans, our message was that we had to return to the way things were before Obama,” another Republican strategist told me. New generations of Cuban-Americans have grown less interested in Cuba policy, which has dropped below the economy, health care, and gun control in its importance to the Cuban-American electorate as a whole. While the community is still mostly Republican, younger Cuban-Americans identify less strongly with the G.O.P. The Venezuela issue, the strategist added, galvanized older Cuban-American voters, whose turnout had become more important than ever.
Andrade walked me through the messages for other communities. Puerto Ricans, he said, were primarily concerned with the territory’s achieving statehood. The national Republican leadership tends to reject this idea, but during the campaign DeSantis claimed to support it, in addition to immediate measures to insure the territory’s sovereignty. On the campaign trail, Scott, who had travelled to Puerto Rico at least eight times as governor, emphasized the idea of representation, stressing the line “I’m going to be your senator.”
The Colombian-American community, Andrade said, had closely followed recent Presidential elections in Colombia, in which a right-wing candidate, Iván Duque, won by demonizing the previous government’s peace accords with Marxist rebels. When Duque assumed office, in August, Scott was on hand for the inauguration, and appeared on Univision, which broadcast the event in Florida. Andrade said, “We saw that as an election that came down to a choice between socialist and non-socialist. The takeaway, in the governor’s race, was that Gillum was the socialist.”
Similar appeals to Nicaraguans were reinforced by events in Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, the country’s strongman President, has repressed dissent and brutalized opponents. One pro-DeSantis mailer added Gillum to a lineup of Latin-American socialist authoritarians, from Maduro to Ortega and Raúl Castro.
In 1983, when Ronald Reagan travelled to Little Havana for a rally, Al Cardenas, his state campaign chair, told the Times, “If you were running for President in a Latin-American country, I don’t think you could fit the profile any better.” The same could be said of Trump. Between his daily fulminations against the press and his fondness for campaign pageantry, there’s something of the tropical caudillo about him. And, as the G.O.P. has morphed into the party of Trump, a small group of Florida Republicans have helped him boost his image with the state’s Latino electorate. Representatives Mario Díaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Carlos Curbelo have deep ties to the Cuban community. Rick Scott has offered advice: in November, 2016, after Fidel Castro died, Trump, as President-elect, called Scott to ask what he should say. Most helpful of all is Rubio, who is known both for his interest in Latin-American policy and for his tendency to view the region through the lens of Cuban-American relations. “He knows a lot,” a former White House official who worked with Rubio told me. “But what’s good for Cuban-Americans isn’t always what’s good for America.”
When Rubio and Trump were running for President, they were contentious opponents: Rubio was “Little Marco”; Trump was a “con artist.” But that changed in early 2017, when Trump was trying to secure support in the Senate to repeal Obamacare, and Rubio was a swing vote. Rubio, for his part, wanted to be the Party’s lead policymaker on Latin America.
If Trump had any real interest in Cuba, it was as a business opportunity and a political staging ground. In 1998, he sent a group of investment advisers to the country on his behalf—in violation of the U.S. embargo. The following year, when he was considering running for President, he gave a speech in Miami vowing never to do business in Cuba while Fidel Castro was in power. One former White House official told me that, by 2017, “the instructions were ‘Make Rubio happy.’ The President didn’t care about Cuba at all, so it wasn’t a big thing for him.”
The White House set a deadline of the summer of 2017 to reverse Obama’s Cuba policy, and Rubio took the lead, working with officials at the National Security Council, as well as other Florida Republicans. At one point, after repeatedly failing to get meetings with the President, representatives from Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas—states that exported goods to Cuba, and didn’t want White House policy to block trade with the country—became upset. “They said to us, ‘This is bullshit,’ ” a White House official told me. “ ‘We are Trump country. Why is the President only talking to Rubio and Díaz-Balart? We represent more votes than they do!’ ” But the Administration—and the Florida Republicans—saw the congressmen’s business-minded pragmatism as insufficiently hard-line.
On June 16, 2017, at a ceremony in Little Havana, with Rubio as the m.c. and the Florida Republican delegation in attendance, Trump claimed to be “cancelling the last Administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.” The presentation was a greatest hits of anti-Castro invective, featuring a violin performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and homages to veterans of the Bay of Pigs. Nonetheless, the plan left most of Obama’s policy intact: embassies remained open; direct commercial flights and cruises continued; Americans could still send unlimited remittances. “This was domestic electoral politics, not foreign policy,” the second White House official told me. Returning to Washington on Air Force One, Trump said, “We’re done. I won. We did what we needed to do. I said I’d undo Obama’s policy, and I did.”
A few months later, as the Cuban-American community in Miami learned the details of Trump’s policy, Rubio, who, according to two White House officials, had been involved in drafting the policy, now lambasted it as the work of the deep state. “Bureaucrats in the State Department who oppose the President’s Cuba policy refused to fully implement it,” he said, in a statement issued just five hours after the final regulations were published. But, by then, Trump had shifted his focus to Venezuela.
In May, while the White House had been preparing to unveil its Cuba policy, the situation in Caracas had exploded. “People were marching in the streets by the millions, and on our end there was no strategy,” one White House official told me. Officials at the N.S.C. started meeting with the State Department, and the Administration decided to impose a series of escalating sanctions in response to actions taken by Maduro.
Later that month, Administration officials noticed a pattern. Every time they met with Rubio or his aides to share news about the developing Venezuela policy, the senator found some way to publicly disclose it in advance of a White House announcement. On May 17th, he appeared on the Senate floor with, he said, “an update and a suggestion, a request of the Administration about a step that we can take.” According to a White House official involved in the policy, Rubio had been informed that the Administration planned to sanction eight members of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, including the chief judge, the next day. He delivered the speech to make it look as if he were the one behind it. “He was beginning to be seen as the godfather of Latin-American issues,” another White House official told me. In July, after Maduro held a sham election for the constituent assembly, Rubio preëmpted another White House announcement of sanctions, this time against Maduro himself. Having been told that sanctions were imminent, Rubio called for them in an official statement, voicing his confidence that “Trump will respond swiftly and decisively.” Trump was enraged, the official told me, but he and Rubio continued to “play from the same sheet of music.” They needed each other.
Announcing the latest sanctions, H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, said, “Maduro is not just a bad leader. He is now a dictator.” Many Democrats, especially those in South Florida, concurred, and routinely assailed Maduro themselves. “There was almost no sunlight between the South Florida Democrats and the Trump Administration on the Venezuela question,” a senior Senate aide told me. But Trump and the Florida Republican delegation made sure that Democrats were cut out of conversations about Venezuelan policy. (Through a spokesperson, Rubio, who in the Senate has partnered with Democrats on legislation related to Venezuela, denied this.) When Trump and Pence travelled to Florida, they met only with Republican officeholders, then invited them to high-profile briefings in Washington. The more that the White House discussed Venezuela and Cuba, the more the region came to look like an exclusively Republican priority.
In March, 2018, Trump fired McMaster and replaced him with John Bolton, a fierce advocate of regime change in Latin America. The Senate staffer told me, “When Bolton takes over, the message was ‘You guys are doing the right thing, keep going, but you’re not taking enough political credit. Venezuela policy will affect Florida in 2020.’ ” Inside the White House, Bolton’s confidence created the illusion of immediate progress. He “misled POTUS,” one White House official said. “Bolton told him, ‘This whole thing is going to be over soon.’ ” After the Administration announced a battery of policies against Maduro and the Cuban government, Bolton examined news reports in Florida to gauge the reaction. When he found critical op-eds or letters, especially from Republican voters faulting the Administration for not being tough enough, he told staffers, “These are the guys who are supposed to be supporting us. If we’re losing them, we’re doing something wrong.” (A senior Administration official denied that Bolton had a political agenda.)
Bolton’s appointment was a triumph for Rubio and the Florida Republicans, many of whom had long-standing relationships with him. In August, Bolton fired the N.S.C.’s head of Latin America policy and replaced him with an attorney from South Florida named Mauricio Claver-Carone, known among establishment politicians in Washington for his extremist, zero-sum outlook on Cuba. The Republican strategist told me that, in Miami, “the news about Mauricio made everyone very happy.”
Trump named another Rubio ally, Carlos Trujillo, as the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, a body designed to avoid regional military conflict. According to three Administration officials, Rubio also tried, but failed, to get the President to replace the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “Rubio can’t control the Holy Trinity on Latin America policy in Washington,” another former State Department official said. “But he gets two out of three. He gets the Father and the Holy Ghost.” The effect was to create an echo chamber, in which the Administration convinced itself that Maduro’s fall was imminent. “This was the product of a small group of people who are being fed information from members of the Venezuelan diaspora,” the official told me.
The headquarters of Actualidad Radio, an AM station started by Cuban and Venezuelan businessmen thirteen years ago, occupies a peach-colored building fringed with palm trees, on a quiet street off the freeway in Doral. One afternoon in late June, I arrived there with Luisana Pérez, who handles Latino outreach for Florida’s Democratic Party. Pérez, who is thirty-two years old, came to the U.S. from Venezuela in 2011, after becoming engaged to a U.S. citizen, the son of a veteran of the Bay of Pigs. She volunteered at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, in Miami, on a campaign to persuade the state legislature to grant driver’s licenses to the undocumented; that led to a job in the office of a Democratic state senator named José Javier Rodríguez, a Cuban-American with a law practice in Coral Gables.
A few months before Pérez and I met, the Florida Democratic Party had held a meeting in Fort Lauderdale to discuss plans for 2020, and she was given an eighty-thousand-dollar budget to begin outreach. “When I started with J.J.R.”—José Javier Rodríguez—“he was very active on the radio, and I started to realize how important it was for a state representative to be on the radio,” she told me. Univision and Telemundo are popular in South Florida, but AM radio is a diaspora staple. There’s Radio Mambí, the Cuban-American heir to La Cubanísima, the famous anti-Castro station, and the Colombian station Caracol. Amandi, the pollster, told me that Actualidad is “the command center of the Venezuelan community.” It has a distinctly Venezuelan format: improvised and loosely structured, with frequent audience participation. The main topic of conversation, as on all South Florida Spanish-language stations, is the situation in Venezuela. Pérez bought a slot on Actualidad, for four hundred and twenty-five dollars, and hired a Venezuelan-American host, creating a news show with a progressive bent, called “Democracia al Día,” which airs every Saturday at noon.
The key to targeting voters in South Florida, Pérez told me, was understanding the fault lines within the diaspora communities. “If you tell me when you got to this country, I’ll tell you what your socioeconomic background is,” she said. “If you have money, you can get visas. If you don’t, you need T.P.S. or asylum.” When Pérez arrived, she stayed with extended family who’d been there for more than a decade and had a house in a gated community. People who have arrived in the past five years, by contrast, often live together in subdivided apartments, doing odd jobs to pay the rent. “Take a Lyft or an Uber—all the drivers are Venezuelans,” she said. There’s been a similar evolution among Cubans. The island’s economy has cratered in the past few decades, and recent immigrants to the U.S., who are poorer than their predecessors, are fleeing a different place. Rodríguez told me, “It’s hard for some members of the Old Guard to claim to be leaders of the Cuban community, given how out of touch they are with the people coming now.” This was one reason that Pérez was so frustrated with the Democratic Presidential candidates who came to Miami and talked about immigration without addressing local particularities: they were missing a historic opportunity to break the Republican grip on the leadership of South Florida’s diaspora communities. “Whether you came here twenty years ago or one year ago,” she said, “one of the things that unites everyone is what’s happening in Venezuela.”
Democrats in South Florida have attacked the Trump Administration for championing Venezuelans in Venezuela but ignoring them once they arrive in the United States. For all the current political parallels between Venezuela and Cuba, immigration policy has been a point of conspicuous divergence. Cubans have historically enjoyed a singular set of immigration benefits. In 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act allowed Cubans to apply for permanent residency on an expedited basis—after a year and a day in the U.S. Beginning in 1995, through a policy called “wet foot, dry foot,” Cubans who had reached U.S. soil were guaranteed legal status. Venezuelans’ request for T.P.S. is comparatively modest. Nevertheless, Trump still refuses to grant it, despite appeals from Rubio and Guaidó. “The Republican Party is going from a conservative party to a nationalist party,” Rodríguez said. “It’s not the party of Reagan that’s going full bore anti-immigrant.”
In an e-mail obtained by the Wall Street Journal, Elliott Abrams, the Administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, warned the N.S.C. that the U.S. would become a “laughingstock” if it deported Venezuelans while fighting the Maduro regime. “We have absolutely got to avoid any noncriminal deportations while we sort it out,” he wrote. Claver-Carone tersely replied that any form of relief for Venezuelan refugees would send the message that Maduro might not fall anytime soon, and added that “it opens up inconsistencies” with the Administration’s immigration agenda. Since 2016, there’s been an eighty-four-per-cent increase in the deportation of Venezuelans and a six-hundred-and-twenty-per-cent increase in the deportation of Cubans.
Still, not all Venezuelan immigrants regard Trump’s agenda as an affront. “The Venezuelans here do not see themselves as undocumented,” Pérez told me. “They think of the undocumented as the Guatemalans, the Central Americans. There’s a reluctance in the community to identify as immigrants.” Rafael Fernandez said that Venezuelans in Doral saw the latest waves of refugees as a Venezuelan political issue, rather than as part of the immigration wars in America. “Their stance on illegal immigration is tough,” he said.
A few days before Trump announced that “millions” of people would be arrested in a series of national immigration raids, DeSantis signed a bill to increase immigration enforcement at the state level. Democrats had introduced an amendment to create special protections for Venezuelans, but Republicans voted it down. Annette Taddeo, a Democratic state senator from Miami, told me, “All the representatives who stand with the Venezuelan flag, who go to the Arepazo”—the most popular Venezuelan restaurant in Doral—“and give all these press conferences, they voted against the amendment to protect Venezuelans against these freaking raids that are coming.”
Taddeo and I were at Actualidad for an 8 A.M. show called “Prohibido Callarse” (“It’s Forbidden to Shut Up”), hosted by Roberto Rodríguez Tejera, who is Cuban, and Juan Camilo Gómez, a Colombian. At Actualidad, liberals go on the air in the morning, conservatives in the afternoon. The later it gets, the farther right the personalities move; by dinnertime, the hosts are extolling Trump and calling for an armed invasion against Maduro.
“In Miami, they call us the Communists,” Gómez joked. He was sitting in the recording booth with Rodríguez Tejera, the pollster Fernand Amandi, and Taddeo, who’s Colombian-American. They were drinking plastic cups of Cuban coffee and discussing the Democrats in South Florida. Mounted on the wall above them were three TVs, tuned to Fox News, CNN, and CNN en Español, showing, respectively, segments on “censoring conservatives,” Robert Mueller, and the latest statements made by Juan Guaidó.
Like many Democrats in South Florida, the four of them wanted Maduro gone, but they had to answer for other Democrats who were less attuned to the situation. Nancy Pelosi hasn’t visited the Venezuelan community in South Florida this year. Bill de Blasio had recently flaunted his Spanish while in Miami by quoting Che Guevara. Last February, when the journalist Jorge Ramos, of Univision, asked Bernie Sanders whether he recognized the Presidency of Guaidó, he said no.
One “Prohibido Callarse” listener, who had posted a question for the group on Twitter, wanted to know why it was “so hard” for Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to condemn Maduro. A local Democrat told me that the head of the D.N.C., Tom Pérez, had done Florida Democrats “no favors” by bringing the primary debate to the state, because it exposed the left wing of the Party.
Democrats need to avoid the trap of framing their stance on Venezuela solely in opposition to Trump. “You have to say, ‘These guys in Venezuela and Cuba and Nicaragua are bad,’ and then pivot to how Trump is making it worse,” Mora, the professor of politics, said. “The mentality that what’s happening in Venezuela is all about Trump will just reinforce the Republican narrative that Democrats are either ignorant or sympathetic with the regime.”
In August, the Trump Administration announced further sanctions against Venezuela, which news outlets, drawing on the old Cuba policy, mistakenly called an “embargo.” Risa Grais-Targow, a Venezuela expert at the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, told me, “This was more of a signalling mechanism than a game-changer.” The signal may be more mixed than the Administration seems to realize: after sixty years of punitive politics, the regime in Cuba is still intact.
Maria Casado, a Venezuelan journalist who lives in Miami, told me that there’s an expression in Spanish that sums up the situation: Yo me arrimo al mejor postor, or “I’ll pick the contender with the best chance of winning.” Right now, many Venezuelans in South Florida see the Republican Party as their best bet to resolve the worsening crisis. “They’ve got a bully pulpit that’s larger than ours,” the Democratic representative Donna Shalala told me. Her district, which includes Miami, is seventy-two per cent Latino, and more than a third of its residents are Cuban. Her frequent denunciations of authoritarian socialism can make her sound like a Republican to people outside Florida, though she supports T.P.S. and the Affordable Care Act. “This requires a very clear voice, not one that’s particularly nuanced,” she said. “It’s not just understanding Venezuela. It’s understanding a whole generation of people who are in exile.”
“How can you support a President and a party that are attacking your people?” Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democratic first-term representative from Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, asked. Born in Ecuador, Mucarsel-Powell beat Carlos Curbelo, the Rubio ally, in 2018, flipping a key seat. In 2020, she faces a Republican challenger, a Cuban-American businesswoman named Irina Vilariño, who has defined her platform as “pro-growth economic policies and a tough stance against dictators like Nicolás Maduro.” Last year, Vilariño appeared twice with the President, in Washington and in South Florida, and, in June, Mike Pence headlined a Latinos for Trump rally in Miami. That month, at the Democratic Party’s annual state fund-raiser, called the Blue Gala, no national Latino officeholders gave speeches. “We need to be connecting with Hispanic voters,” Mucarsel-Powell told me. She attributed her success in 2018 to Curbelo’s support for the Trump tax bill, Republicans’ repeated attacks on Obamacare, and the Republican Party’s increasing hostility to immigrants. “There’s no party loyalty here,” she said. “Candidates tend to leave Florida for the end, which never works. The constituency of Latino voters in Florida is different than Latino voters in California and Texas.”
“It’s always easier for the Republicans, because they have one single message, from the top to the bottom of the Party,” a Florida Democratic official told me ruefully. But, by the end of the summer, there were signs that the national Democratic leadership was beginning to craft a unified message on Venezuela. In late August, at a meeting in San Francisco, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution expressing support for the “Venezuelan migrant community” and calling on the Trump Administration to grant it T.P.S. The resolution used words like “condemnation,” but in relation only to Trump, not to Maduro. In the past year, Democrats have tried to make up for lost time: of seven bills on Venezuela in the House and the Senate, six were initiated by Democrats. All of them have languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The Trump Administration is now offering Maduro some form of amnesty if he steps down, and the Venezuelan opposition is warming to the prospects of peace talks with the government. Through it all, the Florida Republicans are holding the political line. During a visit to Israel, Rick Scott posted a photograph on Twitter of himself in a yarmulke, and wrote, “Today, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray for an end to Nicolás Maduro’s evil regime and genocide in #Venezuela.”
This article appears in the print edition of the September 23, 2019 of the New Yorker issue, with the headline “So Goes the Nation.”