MIAMI — Thousands of Venezuelans filled a Miami convention center Saturday to hear Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, promise freedom for his country.
Guaidó received a warm reception in his first trip to South Florida since he assumed an interim presidency one year ago. Florida is home to the largest Venezuelan diaspora in the country. Guaidó vowed to put an end to the government of Nicolás Maduro and create a continent free of dictatorships.
“We have a plan, we have a strategy, and we have the support of the world,” Guaidó told the audience, many of them wearing caps and jackets with the Venezuelan flag.
The crowd chanted “Guaidó” and “libertad,” the Spanish word for freedom, throughout the event and erupted in a chant calling for outside military intervention in Venezuela.
“We can forge ahead, because we are united,” he said.
Florida is an important swing state in the 2020 election for President Donald Trump, whose administration has shown steadfast support for the leader, though the two have yet to meet face-to-face. The roughly 200,000 Venezuelans in the state make up an important and growing constituency for elected leaders, and several spoke at the rally to express support for Guaidó, including Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Reps. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
The United States was the first nation to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, and he now has the support of nearly 60 governments. Miami is the latest stop on an international tour to shore up support in his quest to remove Maduro from office.
Jessica Mora, 33, who works for a courier company, attended the rally with her mother and 2-year-old daughter. She left Venezuela five years ago, because it was becoming difficult to find food and medicine.
She supports Guaidó but thinks he can do more. “I want something to happen,” she said referring to the economic and social chaos that has engulfed her home country.
Yaniedy Andrade, 37, who went to the rally with her husband, Daniel Rojas, 42, and their 8-year-old daughter, said they left Venezuela two years ago after Rojas was attacked by pro-government groups for supporting the opposition. Andrade and Rojas said they have faith in Guaidó, whom they called a strong leader, but they still think outside military intervention is needed to remove Maduro.
“Venezuela alone cannot get out of this situation,” Rojas said.
Guaidó defied a travel ban and slipped out of Venezuela on Jan. 19, stopping in Colombia, Europe, and Canada. He met with world leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Some have speculated about Guaidó meeting Trump, who is also in South Florida this weekend at his Mar-a-Lago residence, about an hour's drive from Miami. Scoring a meeting with Trump would be symbolically important for Guaidó, 36, who has already met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and White House adviser Ivanka Trump during this trip.
In January 2019, Guaidó invoked the constitution as a legislative leader to assume interim presidency and declared Maduro a usurper. Maduro’s 2018 reelection, in which key opposition figures were barred from running, was rejected by the legislature, the U.S. and the European Union, among others.
The Trump administration was the first to throw its weight behind Guaidó and since then has sanctioned the state-run Venezuelan oil company PDVSA and taken other measures to pressure Maduro out of office.
Guaidó has not been able to deliver the change in Venezuela he has promised, and Maduro remains in power with military backing and control over most branches of the government. Maduro, who took control after the 2013 death of former President Hugo Chávez, says Guaidó is a puppet of the U.S.
Venezuela, once one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries with vast oil and mineral resources, has been roiled in economic and political turmoil in recent years because of decades of corruption and mismanagement. Trump administration sanctions that prohibit exports of oil to the U.S. have not helped.
The country of 30 million people has the highest inflation in the world, though it has abated in recent months. Some wealthier areas have experienced improved economies after Maduro relaxed some economic policies, like loosening restrictions on the private sector and embracing the dollar. Still, most of the country suffers from shortages of gasoline, running water, electricity and other basic services.
An estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, comparable to war-torn Syria.
Although it was unclear when Guaidó would return to Venezuela, during his speech he referred to being in the U.S. during the coming days. Going back to Venezuela could be risky for Guaidó, who remains under a travel ban. But he traveled a year ago and returned without being arrested.
Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constitutional Assembly and one of the most powerful people in Venezuela after Maduro, said Monday that nothing will happen to Guaidó when he returns to Venezuela.
At the rally, attendee Victor Portillo, 34, who works in the audio-visual industry, said Guaidó is “the best option we have.” He said he feels frustrated that the country has not changed since he left two years ago. “If there is no outside military intervention, it will be difficult to achieve change.”