South Florida Democrats said Monday the U.S. must increase pressure on the Venezuelan government to end a devastating humanitarian crisis that has forced millions of people to flee the country.
Rampant inflation and corruption has left Venezuela with dire shortages of food, water, medical supplies and electricity. During a roundtable discussion with Venezuelan community activists in Sunrise, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the U.S. has given the crisis limited attention.
She and Rep.-elect Debbie Mucarsel-Powell—both Democrats—vowed to increase economic sanctions on Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans migrating to the U.S.
“They are starving their people. They’re taking business away from business owners,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Unless we hit Maduro and his regime where it hurts—deeply in their pocket books—then it is going to be very difficult to make significant change there.”
Wasserman Schultz characterized the Trump administration's current policies toward Venezuela as “putting a Band-Aid on someone who is bleeding out.”
Trump has threatened military action against the country and has placed sanctions on members of Maduro's inner circle, including the first lady, defense minister, vice president and other allies. But such policies have done little to stem Maduro's oppressive actions, Wasserman Schultz said, adding that the Venezuelan crisis has not been a "hot" issue in Congress.
Some Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, John Cornyn of Texas and Cory Gardner of Colorado, have also said there should be stronger sanctions on Venezuela. They have gone as far as calling for the country to be labeled a state sponsor of terrorism.
Still, the discussion on Monday highlighted the strengthened hand Democrats will have next year as they take control of the House of Representatives. Wasserman Schultz and Mucarsel-Powell said the House will give the crisis in Venezuela greater attention, including reintroducing a bill that increases humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans.
Another proposal would grant TPS—the program that protects immigrants from some countries from deportation—to Venezuelan migrants. The United Nations has reported that the Venezuelan exodus is likely to swell to 5.3 million by the end of 2019. Most Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia along with Peru, Brazil and Argentina, among other countries.
Thousands have also tried to migrate to the U.S.; Venezuelans now make up the largest group, by nationality, of people seeking asylum in the U.S. But Mucarsel-Powell said the Trump administration has been denying them asylum and deporting them. It’s another example of his hardline stance against all Latino immigrants, she said.
“We are not providing visas to the Venezuelans that are trying to come in,” she said. “We have Venezuelans now living in South Florida that are part of our economy. The're contributing to our economy.”
The Trump administration had announced it’s ending TPS for more than 300,000 immigrants from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Sudan. But a federal judge in October blocked Trump's order. The administration has said it will comply with the ruling.
A debate over oil imports from Venezuela was another major focus of Monday’s discussion.
Mucarsel-Powell and other activists, including Devorah Sasha of the International Solidarity for Human Rights, said U.S. oil imports remain a lifeblood for the country. The U.S.’s oil purchases from Venezuela have accounted for 80 percent of the country’s petroleum revenue. If the Trump administration cut imports, the Maduro regime would have difficulty surviving.
Wasserman Schultz agreed, but said cutting imports would increase U.S. gas prices. She suggested gradually abandoning Venezuelan oil.
“It is something that has to be entered into in a very deliberate and delicate way,” she said, adding that higher gas prices would only turn Americans against helping Venezuela. “Rightly or wrongly, that’s just not something that Americans are going to tolerate.”
The lawmakers further condemned other countries, including Russia and China, that have been propping up the Venezuelan regime. Maduro visited Moscow earlier in December to secure economic and political assistance from the Kremlin. Russia also recently landed two nuclear-capable bomber jets near Caracas.
Mauricio Tancredi, the president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, added other Latin American countries must do more to pressure the Venezuelan regime.
“It’s becoming a Latin American problem,” he said. “Definitely there has to be a common effort between not only the United States but the neighboring countries—Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil—where most Venezuelans are going.”