MIAMI — Ernesto Ackerman watched the horror in Venezuela play out on a large screen onstage at a rally he helped organize in support of the country's opposition leader, Juan Guaido. The event was initially meant to bring Venezuelans in the city together to coincide with the protests back home. It ended up being something very different.
"A killing of civilians without arms, burning the humanitarian help. We are dealing with the genocide," the Venezuelan-American activist said as they watched the violence play out in real time.
Ackerman, a medical equipment sales executive and co-founder of the nonpartisan grassroots organization Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, was referring to the Venezuelan border standoff led by President Nicolas Maduro that not only prohibited the much-needed food and medical humanitarian aid meant for the Venezuelan people to enter the country but also resulted in the death of four people.
Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, swore himself in as interim president of Venezuela in January, challenging Maduro, who has led the country since 2013. The U.S., along with scores of other countries, recognized Guaido as the leader, and Venezuela's citizens have taken to the streets to protest the nation's ravaging poverty and economic collapse under Maduro.
Those clashes between opposition protesters and forces loyal to Maduro escalated during the attempted delivery of humanitarian supplies. They came exactly one week after President Trump spoke at Florida International University, saying that the U.S. stands with the Venezuelan people and against socialism.
"We seek a peaceful transition of power, but all options are open," Trump said in a dramatic speech to a crowd of supporters including Ackerman, who had his picture taken with the president after the speech.
On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke to the Lima Group of nations in Bogota, Colombia, reinforcing the administration's position that the U.S. has Guaido's back.
The Trump administration upped the pressure by giving more than $50 million in additional aid to Venezuela's neighboring countries to provide safety to Venezuelan refugees, as well as announcing more sanctions against backers of Maduro.
It is exactly what Ackerman and other Venezuelan-Americans want to hear for their former countrymen who live in poverty and fear there. Ackerman's mother, a 96-year-old Slovenian, was in the Auschwitz concentration camp. "She is saying that she lives again in a concentration camp," said Ackerman of her life now. Ackerman's brother, a lawyer by trade, has cancer and hasn't been able to work for years. "He cannot work. There is no courts working, nothing," said Ackerman.
Ackerman is a supporter, not just of President Trump's strong position on the Maduro government but also of the president himself.
"I am a Republican. I cannot understand anyone who has come from Venezuela who would be anything else," he said, adding that what made him a Republican was the idea he could achieve whatever he wanted on his own.
He said of his successes since arriving here in the late 1980s: "Yesterday, we had a meeting with the businessmen from Venezuela. And I explained to them, when I left Venezuela, I wanted — my dream was to be a millionaire, to have a big house, to have a nice car. And that's what democracy and the Republican Party's giving me."
Ackerman is part of an earlier wave of Venezuelan immigrants, many of whom are organizing to help the thousands of new Venezuelans who have been pouring into our country in recent years to flee overwhelming economic collapse and political strife. According to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, immigration from Venezuela has increased by 21 percent between 2016 and 2017 and almost doubled since 2010.
Like the Cubans who came before them who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party during the Cuban missile crisis, Venezuelan voters are moving their loyalty toward the Republican Party because of its strong stance against socialism and communism.
Ackerman said: "Most of the Venezuelans are Democrats. And I really don't understand why. Now, saying that, I see like in maybe in the last year — I see a lot of these Democrats being now pro-President Trump. They know what socialism is. They fled the results of that. They are now seeing all the opportunity and freedom that comes with capitalism, and they are moving that way."
In a state where elections are decided by a slim margin, both parties are always looking to win over new constituencies. Ackerman is convinced Republicans are building an edge, not just on how they treat small businesses — which he says a majority of Venezuelans start once they come to this country — but also on foreign policy.
"If President Trump is persuasive in having Maduro step aside, I think Venezuelan-Americans can be loyal to Republicans for many years to come," said Ackerman.
"When (Trump) said, 'This will be the only region in the world that is not going to have socialism, and the United States won't be socialist either,'" explained Ackerman "that was a very powerful message to everybody."
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