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Florida pols are used to ignoring Latin America realities — so they ignore Ukraine risks

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Jose A. Iglesias
/
Miami Herald
BROMIDES AND BRAVADO Florida Senator Rick Scott (center) with Miami U.S. Rep.'s Maria Elvira Salazar (right) and Carlos Gimenenz at Mondongo's Restaurant in Doral this year.

COMMENTARY Florida politicos are so conditioned to win votes by calling for U.S. military intervention in Latin America that they disregard its dangers in Ukraine.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott and Miami Congresswoman Maria Elvira Salazar are taking heat in responsible foreign policy circles over their push for a U.S.- and NATO-enforced “no-fly” zone over Ukraine. Even hawkish politicos like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio warn that kind of direct U.S. military action against Russia’s murderous Ukraine invasion could trigger Armageddon.

But while the pundits and papers slam Scott and Salazar for their dangerously shallow appreciation of that really red flag, I’ll slip them some Sunshine State understanding. Scott and Salazar are just succumbing to an addictive reflex, a tick that’s as common here as bodybuilders thumping their chests on Ocean Drive.

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They’ve been conditioned to conclude that you win votes in Florida by shouting for la intervención — for U.S. military action against the disastrous and dictatorial left-wing regimes in Latin America that have forced so many exiles to flee here. It’s why Scott recklessly asserted in 2019 it was time for U.S. troops “to defend freedom and democracy” in socialist Venezuela; it’s why Miami Mayor Francis Suarez ludicrously suggested dropping bombs on communist Cuba last summer.

And, when it comes to Ukraine, it’s why Salazar cluelessly remarked last week when asked if she understood what imposing a “no-fly” zone would mean: “I don’t know what it will mean, but you know, freedom is not free.”

Salazar later clarified she does understand the “no-fly” zone risks. But she also understands that her bromide “freedom is not free” is exactly what Florida’s Latin American exiles always want to hear — reassuring rhetoric as they dream of intervención someday solving their own tragedies.

READ MORE: The U.S. now has a Mad-utin problem. It's solvable — if we drop the dictator hypocrisy

Still, there are two big problems with this routine. First, it disconnects Florida politics from geopolitical reality in crises like the Ukraine war. Second, it disconnects Florida politics from Latin American reality.

Exhibit A is a poll out this week from Venezuela (repeat: from Venezuela) that reflects an especially glaring disconnect. The ORC Consultores/Frequency 58 survey of Venezuelans living in Venezuela (repeat: in Venezuela) found that they are not on the same punitive page with Venezuelans living here.

Rather than do the brave thing and listen to the folks in Latin America, Florida politicians too often do the bravado thing and pander to the folks here — and to the expectations of "intervención"

The poll finds a majority living in Venezuela do not approve of the de facto U.S. embargo on Venezuelan oil imports the Trump Administration imposed three years ago — only 16% do. Meanwhile, an ample plurality support negotiations between the Venezuelan opposition and Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime as a means of restoring democracy in Venezuela.

That’s a stark contrast with the sort of hardline Venezuelan exile stance we heard again on Sunday in Miami’s Bayfront Park, under a statue of Venezuela’s 19th-century liberator, Simón Bolívar. Exile leaders insisted that a meeting in Caracas this month between U.S. officials and Venezuelan officials, which in part dealt with the oil sanctions, was a “betrayal of all Venezuelans.”

Or so say Venezuelans who don’t actually live under Maduro’s regime, and who have the luxury of rattling rhetorical sabers in Doral instead of standing in line for scarce food in Maracaibo.

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Ariana Cubillos
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AP
Venezuelans wait in line for scarce food outside a Caracas supermarket.

Venezuelans in Venezuela still can’t stand Maduro: another poll last year handed him a richly deserved 80% disapproval rating. But, from Caracas, ORC director Oswaldo Ramírez pointed out to me that “Maduro’s been taking more pragmatic measures lately, like dollarizing the economy, that have improved the economic picture a little for Venezuelans. That tends to make them want the oil sanctions lifted so the sector can get investment again and create jobs.”

Those Venezuelans essentially told the ORC pollsters, then, that it’s time to acknowledge the oil sanctions are probably not working — especially since Maduro looks more entrenched in power now than he did when they were slapped on him — and find a more effective way of dislodging their dictatorship.

I can’t conclude yet if they’re right or wrong. I do know most Cubans in Cuba have for years been saying the same thing about the U.S. trade embargo, and in their case I’ve concluded they’re right. But that’s not what Cuban exiles want to hear — so it’s not what the exiles tell Florida politicians.

Rather than do the brave thing and listen to folks in Latin America, pols like Scott and Salazar too often do the bravado thing and pander to folks here — and, while they’re at it, ignore the risks in Ukraine.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.