Florida Dems hopeful Biden’s Venezuela move won’t come back to haunt them

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MIAMI — Florida Democrats greeted the White House’s easing of sanctions on Venezuela with cautious optimism.

It’s a turnabout for the state’s beleaguered party, whose members last year were frustrated when the Biden administration made similar moves to restart talks between President Nicolás Maduro’s government and the opposition. Some Democrats felt any overtures to Maduro left them open to accusations that they were socialists and alienated them from Venezuelan voters.

But Florida Democrats say Wednesday night’s announcement is different. The administration’s shift reverses years of U.S. policy against Venezuela and will ease sanctions against companies that trade in oil produced there. It was a response to the Venezuelan government and opposition party reaching a deal for freer elections.

They’re hopeful that the agreement between Maduro and the opposition will strengthen democracy. And Democrats this time also aren’t criticizing the Biden administration.

“Definitely not top of the Biden administration’s mind what goes on down here. They have a bigger picture to look at,” said former state Rep. Annette Taddeo, a Colombian-American Democrat who ran for Florida governor last year. “I have been critical of removal of sanctions … [But] It’s a very different situation, I think the right thing to do.”

Democrats see more potential for free and fair elections, though with noted skepticism, and urged the Biden administration to reinstate the sanctions if the Maduro regime breaks its agreement.

“My reaction reflects, I think, where my Venezuelan-American constituents are: You can’t trust Maduro,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), whose South Florida district has one of the highest concentrations of Venezuelan-Americans in the U.S. “But that’s why the Biden administration has been very committed to not lifting sanctions until we have provable progress on agreements.”

Florida Democrats for years have tried to make inroads with Venezuelan voters and have been dismayed when the Biden administration appeared to undercut those efforts by easing sanctions on Maduro’s regime. They viewed it as an example of the White House writing off Florida, a battleground state that has shifted Republican in recent election cycles.

Last year, when the Biden administration announced it was loosening sanctions on Venezuela, Florida Democrats wasted little time attacking it. Former Rep. Val Demings, who at the time was running for Senate, said the move was “appeasing socialist dictators” while Taddeo said, “I’m sure it will be used [against Democrats].”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment and the Biden campaign declined to weigh in.

Venezuelan-Americans are a relatively small proportion of Florida’s electorate, numbering around 200,000. But Republicans and Democrats have courted them in recent years as more and more flee political and economic instability in their home country. Their situation is similar to that of Cubans, who fled the island nation to escape Fidel Castro’s rule and are one of Florida’s most important voting blocs.

Florida Democrats in recent years also prioritized outreach to Hispanic voters — which includes Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans and Colombians — after Republicans won big among Latinos.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump captured a big slice of Florida’s Hispanic vote, including 55 percent of the state’s Cuban-American vote. Gov. Ron DeSantis did even better in 2022, taking 59 percent of Florida’s Latino electorate.

Nikki Fried, the head of the Florida Democratic Party, called the easing of sanctions a good step toward free and fair elections and praised Biden. Fried had previously sued the Biden administration when she was a state official over federal laws prohibiting medical marijuana users from buying guns.

Some Democrats still rejected the U.S. policy change. Before the Biden administration made the announcement, Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) said he was against lifting any sanctions against the Venezuelan government. And Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who has criticized the Biden administration for reversing sanctions policies on Cuba and Venezuela, on Thursday also blasted the White House for resuming deportations of migrants back to Venezuela.

“I will be asking many questions — loudly and in every available forum — about the Biden administration’s decision to resume these dangerous deportations,” he said in a statement. “The administration should be held to account for this misguided decision.”

Menendez, the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is currently facing federal bribery charges. He’s pleaded not guilty.

But overall, Democrats expressed a bullish, wait-and-see approach.

“This is really, a very one-step-at-a-time, show-me-don’t-tell me kind of process and so I have confidence that the administration has accountability built into the step-by-step process,” said Wasserman Schultz, who is co-chair of the Congressional Venezuela Democracy Caucus. “It’s our responsibility to look at this agreement, or look at the beginnings of this agreement, in a very measured way.”

David Kihara contributed to this report.

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