WASHINGTON — Members of Congress denounced Venezuela's government Wednesday, echoing harsh criticism from the White House and likening the political situation there to Cuba under Fidel and Raúl Castro.
Speaking at a briefing at the Capitol, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has consolidated power, corrupted the courts and removed checks on his executive authority while silencing political opposition. He has “condemned his own people to poverty, starvation and immense suffering,” while amassing wealth and power, Menendez said.
“His actions are straight out of the play books of Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and other brutal dictators,” the senator said the briefing held by the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, a non-partisan group with connections to the Republican-dominated Congressional Hispanic Conference.
Many of the members of Congress who are focusing attention on the situation in Venezuela are of Cuban descent. Many are from Florida, where the largest Venezuelan population can be found, followed by Texas and New York.
But making the comparisons can be somewhat dicey in a Congress that is split over relations with Cuba and the push to end the more than 50-year-old embargo of U.S trade with Cuba.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the vote this past weekend by millions of Venezuelans in the country and around the globe against Maduro was a vote against going the way of Cuba.
"Millions of Venezuelans have said, ‘We don’t want to be Cuba,’ for good reason. 'We don’t want to be a Cuba-style government,'" Rubio said.
Maduro plans a July 30 election to select members of a "constituent assembly" that could make changes to Venezuela's constitution.
"How tragic would it be if on July 30 of this month that constitutional order was overthrown and what would take it’s place is no less than a Cuban style government?" Rubio said. "It is not an exaggeration to say that. They are basically taking the the Cuban model of government and imposing it on Venezuela.”
What is happening in Venezuela "is 1970s stuff," he said. "How truly tragic it would be for one of the richest countries in the world … and one of most Democratic societies in the hemisphere to become Cuba … a place that millions of families have been forced to flee, just so they can feed their family and speak their mind."
President Donald Trump has promised strong and swift economic sanctions against Venezuela if Maduro and he goes forward with the election.
The plan has been seen as another grab for power by an administration that has nullified its National Assembly. The country has spiraled into political and economic chaos as inflation has spiked and the country has experienced food, medicine and other shortages of basic goods.
Maduro's opponents are trying to drum up support for opposition to the government. A national strike was planned for Thursday.
But Maduro’s government has thumbed its nose at the Trump administration threats. It has cracked down on the continual protests that have left more than 90 people dead.
Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latino Public Opinion Forum at Florida International University, said there is some political benefit for Republicans and Trump for taking up the Venezuela cause.
In his 2016 re-election bid, Rubio did not win Doral, Florida, where many of the state’s Venezuelans are found and lost in Miami-Dade, said Gamarra, citing his institute's research. Also many Venezuelans in Doral, Florida voted for Hillary Clinton, he said.
“Post-election, the Venezuelan leadership has been moving more so in the direction of Rubio, and Rubio has done a good job of trying to court that leadership,” Gamarra said.
He said the lawmakers are correct that there is a very large Cuban presence in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, and what is happening in Venezuela, “probably has some kind of Cuban footprint on it.”
But Democratic political strategist José Aristimuño, a Venezuelan-American who founded NOW Strategies, said the U.S. Congress’ potential effect is limited because of Venezuela’s oil resources.
More is likely to come of negotiations that are happening behind closed doors in the country between the opposition and government, Aristimuño said.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said it was important for more members of Congress and the U.S. government to recognize the rejection of Maduro by Venezuelans in last weekend's vote. He said the U.S. needs to isolate the “illegitimate” dictatorship of Maduro and be prepared to “derecognize” Maduro’s government and to recognize the National Assembly as the legitimate and elected government.
He dismissed suggestions that folding in criticism of Cuba would dilute support from others in Congress for a strong anti-Maduro position.
“More and more people understand that this cancer that is killing Venezuela was born in Havana,” Curbelo said.