On Tuesday, Venezuela’s self-declared Interim President Juan Guaidó has called for nationwide protests against the parallel government of President Nicolas Maduro, as part of an escalating standoff that has pitted both governments against each other and led the Trump Administration to lay its cards on the table.
Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell took office last month as the first South American-born congresswoman in US history (she was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador). The 26th District of Florida, which she represents, has one of the nation’s largest populations of Venezuelan-Americans.
WLRN spoke to her about the ongoing situation in the country, whether the topic of Venezuela has been politicized inside the US, how the Trump Administration is handling the crisis, and what it would mean for the region if Maduro is able to weather the storm and stay in office.
This interview has been very lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
WLRN: Can you give me a brief breakdown of what your office has been doing since you came into office with respect to the crisis in Venezuela right now?
MUCARSEL-POWELL: For many months now, even before I got elected, I have always said that the Maduro regime is an illegitimate regime and I have very close friends some family members that live in Venezuela and I've been watching how this situation has gotten progressively worse. So the first week that I got sworn in, I started talking to my staff so that we can introduce a bill right away providing humanitarian aid. A bill was introduced a couple of weeks ago asking the government to provide $150 million in humanitarian aid. I've also asked this administration to provide for the Venezuelans who are living here in this country and asking the U.N. ambassador to put pressure on the international community so that they can also join us providing assistance.
A few weeks ago Vice President Pence came to South Florida and met with Governor Ron DeSantis and other Republicans for a listening session with Venezuelan exiles. Notably, no congressional Democrats seem to have been invited to that. The Florida Democratic Party issued a statement saying Venezuela was being turned into a partisan issue. Do you believe that it's being used as something like a political wedge issue?
Unfortunately, that's what it seems like to me. I really hope that it is not. We can't be using the suffering of the Venezuelan people for political gain. And this is one issue that we have been working in Congress in a bipartisan fashion and I would expect members from both political parties to join us.
I've been working very closely with Representative Donna Shalala, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I joined in a bill that Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart introduced for [Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans] and so on, so I would I would ask that for members of all parties to not make this a political issue it's a very critical situation and we need to show the Venezuelan people that we're with them.
Some of your Democratic colleagues have likened what's happening now in Venezuela as like a foreign intervention. Do you agree that what's happening now is an intervention?
No. And just to tell you representation matters. I was born in Ecuador. I understand Latin American politics very well and I think sometimes when you hear colleagues, whether they're democrats or republicans, saying things like that I think it's more a lack of historical information and perspective.
I have been presenting to the Democratic caucus about the Venezuelan issue. I actually had a meeting with Madam Speaker Nancy Pelosi and she understood the issues. She's been to Venezuela and if you hear her talking about Chavez, because she met him years ago, and she now says that Maduro is ten times worse. Nancy Pelosi understands the issue and she released a statement joining me and Shalala and Wasserman Schultz on our work that we're doing for Venezuela.
I think more than anything what we need to do is educate, inform. But you're always going to have people that have different perspectives. We are 435 members in Congress. We're not always going to agree on all of those issues.
This latest push for getting humanitarian aid into the country, would that count as an intervention if we really push to get that aid into the country contrary Maduro’s will?
I think that if we expect more of, [if] we are asking Venezuelans to restore democracy and fight for their rights, we have to do whatever we can to provide that humanitarian assistance. We can't expect them to fight, to stand up in their country without having access to basic needs like food access to medicine.
It is crucial right now that we do whatever we can to work directly with NGOs, not with the government so that we can get that humanitarian aid inside. Ninety percent of Venezuelans right now are living in poverty. We have a massive exodus of people that are leaving the country. People are dying of hunger. Children are being exposed to viruses that we haven't seen [in years, like], malaria and others. It's crucial that we do whatever we can to provide humanitarian assistance.
How would you rate the Trump administration's handling of the political, economic crisis in Venezuela?
So far I'm optimistic that they are doing some of the right things. I have to tell you that where I do disagree with the Trump administration is when they speak about putting all options on the table and using military action to oust Maduro. I would hope that we use every diplomatic effort to restore democracy and bring some sort of peaceful agreement. I know that Guaidó has asked Maduro to leave and he would give him amnesty and truly believe that with the pressure of the international community, I don't think anyone wants to escalate and bring more violence to that country.
Is there any potential role for the U.S. military in this?
The only role that I think that the United States needs to take is recognizing him [Guaidó] as the legitimate interim president, maybe provide observers once they decide to hold democratic and free and transparent elections and bringing humanitarian aid. Another role that I think is very important are the sanctions that we have imposed. I think that it's important that we cut all means of funding for the regime. That's the way that he's maintained power for so long and I think that those individualize sanctions are going to be very crucial and important as we see the transition of government in Venezuela.
Marco Rubio has become kind of like the unofficial spokesperson of this whole thing. How important is it, you think, to have leaders here in South Florida -- who have a more personal direct experience with talking about these issues of democracy in Latin America and the life experience of the people? How important is that kind of localized representation when what we're talking about is on a national level?
It's extremely important. I can tell you that I have had several roundtables with Venezuelan leaders here locally and they feel immediately comfortable because we're speaking in our native language Spanish and they see me as someone that is from their region and we align in our values and our traditions and our perspectives. And it's going to be very important that they feel that they have representation not just locally but also in Washington D.C. and that's why I have made it such a priority that every time I come back to the district that we continue to have that line of communication because I want to assure them I am here to help and be their voice when I'm in Washington D.C.
If this Venezuelan situation doesn't pan out like how the US government hopes right now would that make someone like President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua more emboldened or entrenched if Maduro is able to stick this out?
I think that's why it's so critical at this moment that not only the United States but the E.U., the Organization of American States, we all work together to do whatever we can at this moment to support Guaidó, the National Assembly, get Maduro out because that's going to send a very strong message not just to Ortega, but to any other Central American or Latin and South American country that has populist governments that are trying to take over and violate human rights of their people.