Will Venezuelans in Florida Turn Against DeSantis?

“People are upset at DeSantis, even if they supported him.”

A hand holding a Venezuelan flag and threatening to smash miniature of Ron DeSantis.
Getty; The Atlantic

Two Republican governors last month sent asylum seekers to the two most Democratic places they could think of—Martha’s Vineyard and the doorstep of Kamala Harris’s house in Washington, D.C. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas have made no secret of the message they were trying to send: Immigrants are a burden, and one that Democratic states should share.

The migrants chosen to deliver this message were from Venezuela—a somewhat puzzling choice, given that Venezuelans in the United States, like Cubans, typically lean right. Their politics are largely shaped by a rejection of anything that reminds them of the socialism they escaped, and in the Republican Party, many have found sympathetic ears. A poll by the University of North Florida estimated that seven out of 10 Venezuelan voters in Florida voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Have DeSantis and Abbott jeopardized their party’s appeal for Venezuelans already established in the United States? I asked Liz Rebecca Alarcón, a Democrat and a Venezuelan who founded a Latino-focused nonprofit media outlet in Miami, how her co-nationals in Florida have reacted to the migrant-busing controversy.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Gisela Salim-Peyer: Can you tell me about the organization you run, Project Pulso?

Liz Rebecca Alarcón: We are a nonprofit media outlet that helps Latinos become more civically engaged. We help Latinos vote in elections, register to vote, respond to the census, and really participate in the issues that they care about. We serve more than a million Latinos across the country.

Salim-Peyer: How would you characterize the Venezuelan community in the United States?

Alarcón: We’re traumatized, and we’re a new immigrant community, and we do not have a history of migrating. Venezuela was a country that received immigrants from all across Europe, Latin America, the Middle East.

The regime of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, now 23 years in, has caused nearly 7 million people to leave Venezuela. And so we feel alone. We feel like our country was taken away. And it’s a feeling that Cubans and Nicaraguans and other immigrant communities understand.

Salim-Peyer: Is Governor Ron DeSantis popular among Venezuelan voters in Florida? What about the Republican Party as a whole?

Alarcón: Many Venezuelans have gravitated towards the Republican Party. There is no doubt that its leadership has spoken to the traumas and the worries and the pain of the Venezuelan community. DeSantis often talks about not wanting to replicate in the U.S. the problems facing Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. It is appealing to hear a politician understand and speak to our pain and talk about taking action—even if they don’t do it. It’s just the talk: “I see you. I understand you don’t want us to become Venezuela. We’re with you.”

The Trump administration promised to support negotiations for a democratic transition in Venezuela. But that never happened. Republicans promised to help Venezuelans here. That didn’t happen. Instead, the Trump administration unilaterally put in place sanctions against Venezuela, which did not really help the cause [of removing Maduro from power]. They paid a lot of attention but took little action.

I don’t think the Democrats have done a great job, either.  They have taken some action to support Venezuelans. Notably, President Biden granted Venezuelans temporary protected status. But Democratic leaders have been less interested in emotional speeches. They don’t hit the heartstrings of Venezuelans as often as we’ve seen the Republicans do.

On the Republican side, lots of emotion and little action. And then on the Democratic side, less effort to fully understand the pain, but some attempts to find solutions that take time, because legislation and policy are hard.

Salim-Peyer: How would you describe the reaction of Venezuelans in Florida to the news that the governor sent two planes full of Venezuelans to Martha’s Vineyard?

Alarcón: Disappointed. People are upset at DeSantis, even if they supported him.

Here in Miami, we have the headquarters of many Venezuelan outlets—EVTV, TV Venezuela—with prominent journalists who have openly supported the Republican Party, former President Trump, and Ron DeSantis. And these journalists would very rarely give coverage to any action that the Democrats were doing or criticize the Republican leadership. That has not been the case this time around. Those same journalists who have been openly supportive of Republican leadership now are putting President Biden’s statements on Instagram and talking about the lawsuits against Ron DeSantis. I have not seen that in the past electoral cycles.

I think that what the governor thought he could do was pit Venezuelans against Venezuelans, good immigrants against bad immigrants. He wanted to get Venezuelans already established in Florida to say, “These new Venezuelans came in a way different than how I came.” And I don’t think that that’s going to work.

I think that there was an idea that Venezuelans were different, were exceptional. And I think what this stunt made people realize is that when you have someone in power who is anti-immigrant—which is what I think DeSantis is—we’re not safe either.

Salim-Peyer: Can you elaborate on your point that Venezuelans felt they were “exceptional”?

Alarcón: I think there is, unfortunately, this idea that because we didn’t come—until now—walking, or crossing the border, or on a boat, we’re fundamentally different from many other Latino immigrants in the country. Many Venezuelan people came with political asylum, came with immigrant investor visas, or came on student visas. Overwhelmingly, Venezuelans have gone to college, have master’s degrees. El sifrinismo del venezolano [“the snobbery of Venezuelans”] has led us to believe that we’re better, that we’re different than some immigrant communities. It hurts me to say it as a Venezuelan. But I think that’s true.

And now we are seeing Venezuelans arrive at the border, walking like all other immigrants and seeking a better life. And we’re not treated humanely; we’re treated like many other immigrants, from Haiti and Cuba and Central America and Mexico, who cross the border in this way. And so I think seeing that the governor no longer welcomes us has been a reality check. It’s humbling for Venezuelans to realize that when you come to this country, no matter if you came by plane or with an immigrant investor visa or on a scholarship, you’re still an immigrant.