WASHINGTON — Venezuelans stormed into Washington on Friday, rallying for sanctions against their home country’s regime and protesting what they said was the White House’s timid attempts to address that nation’s growing political crisis.
Several hundred protesters – including a three-bus contingent from Miami – rallied at the Capitol, walked the halls of Congress to lobby individual members and chanted under sunny skies in front of the White House.
Draped in Venezuelan flags and clad in tricolored hats or special “Trip for Freedom” T-shirts, the Venezuelan-Americans from 17 states first gathered at the Capitol Visitor Center, where they jammed into a meeting room and heard from four members of Congress, who told them their efforts were already getting results.
On Friday morning, they were told, a key House of Representatives committee passed a bill that would allow targeted sanctions on the individuals responsible for carrying out or ordering human rights abuses against the citizens of Venezuela.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate, which held a hearing on the issue Thursday. That bill is being pushed by both Florida senators – Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson – as well as others.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida who sponsored the House bill, said the committee’s action sent “a strong message” to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro “that the United States Congress is well aware of the ongoing abuses perpetuated by his regime, and that they will not go unpunished.”
When Ros-Lehtinen entered the room of Venezuelan visitors, she was given a rock star’s welcome – and her greeting was only a little more boisterous than that given Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., Joe Garcia, D-Fla., and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
Since February, Venezuelans protesting Maduro’s regime have been met with often-brutal state-sanctioned violence, according to political leaders and human rights observers. Rubio, for example, said this week that “the government’s barbaric repression has resulted in at least 41 deaths that we know of, more than 2,519 detentions and at least 80 documented cases of torture.”
As U.S. politicians of both political parties have pushed the Obama administration to act more forcefully, the Venezuelan-Americans in town were there to reinforce that message.
Doral, Fla., Mayor Luigi Boria joined the group at the Capitol and in front of the White House, leading the rally and standing up for the families of his constituents; Doral has the largest Venezuelan community in the U.S.
“I have no doubt that at the end of the day, President Obama will know what is going on in Venezuela – and he will take action to stop this regime,” Boria, who was born in Venezuela, said in an interview. While Boria said he knew the administration was going slowly in order to hear all sides of the issue, “I think they have taken too long. That’s why we have to go around the country and show Americans what is going on.”
The first step of their efforts took place right after the Capitol rally. Organizers divided the throngs of Venezuelan-Americans into groups who then walked the halls of Congress with signed letters that urged action on the sanctions legislation.
Rosa Navas, a schoolteacher from Arlington, Va., joined a half dozen women from the Atlanta area. They paraded to the Cannon House Office Building, seven letters in tow. They stopped in seven congressional offices, holding seven polite conversations – but without a chance to deliver the letters to anybody but the people sitting at the front desks.
It was lunchtime, Navas said. At least they were getting their message into the offices of every member of Congress.
The protest and rally in front of the White House went on for nearly two hours.
The buses from the Miami area had left Doral at 8 a.m. Thursday and didn’t get to Washington for more than 24 hours, missing the events at the Capitol. They hooked up with the groups in front of the White House.
Freddy Moros, who helped organize the trip, put the total of bus riders at 168. The cost was $90 per person, the crowd a mix of young and old. They erupted in applause when word trickled out that the House committee had passed the sanctions bill.
“Everybody was so happy,” said Moros, who’s lived in Miami for 12 years and had lived in Venezuela before that. “It was amazing it passed.”
But the group’s work isn’t done, he said. The signs and posters at the White House rally carried photographs of bruised and beaten people – the ones the rally is intended to help.