July 28, 2007
A group of local Venezuelan Americans who are pushing presidential candidates to take a hard line on Hugo Chávez will meet with Republican candidate Mitt Romney today.
For Isilio Arriaga, the most important issues in the 2008 presidential race don't revolve around taxes or the Iraq War.
His passion is his homeland of Venezuela, where leftist President Hugo Chávez has used that country's vast oil wealth to move toward a Cuban-style socialism -- a danger, Arriaga believes, for both Latin America and the United States.
Arriaga and other members of Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens are pushing the presidential candidates in their adopted country to take a hard line on Chávez's ''anti-democratic'' actions. They've had some successes -- sometimes with the help of South Florida's Cuban-American power brokers.
Today the group will meet with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, at -- where else -- the nexus of Cuban-American political power, Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana.
'Chávez is creating a mess in Latin America, taking it back to the days of `Yanqui go home,' said Arriaga, a past president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and a former Florida Public Service Commission member. ``Every candidate needs to include Venezuela in their platform . . . because there is a problem there, and it's going to get worse.''
While Arriaga is a Republican -- and on two advisory committees for Romney's campaign -- the group's leaders say that there are Democrats and nonaffiliated independent-minded voters among their members.
Among the issues they plan to bring up with Romney: speeding the processing of political asylum applications for Venezuelans; concerns about the spread in the United States of pro-Chávez groups called Bolivarian Circles; and lowering trade tariffs on Brazilian ethanol, which they view as an alternative to the current U.S. dependence on Venezuelan oil.
Romney ''wants to meet with these exiles and listen to their points of view and learn more about the internal struggles in Venezuela,'' said Al Cardenas, former Florida Republican Party chairman and one of Romney's Latin America policy advisors. ``What's happening with Hugo Chávez is important, not just because of what is happening in Venezuela, but because of the destabilizing influence he's having on the hemisphere.''
IVAC members have also reached out to other candidates -- though not always in amicable circumstances.
They recently slammed Democrat John Edwards for palling around with Chávez fan and actor Danny Glover, and picketed Republican Rudy Giuliani at a Dania Beach event because of his firm's past lobbying for Citgo, which Venezuela's government owns.
Both candidates defended their actions. An Edwards spokesman said the candidate rejected ''Chávez's increasingly authoritarian actions'' but shared Glover's views on workers' rights and poverty issues. Giuliani first defended the firm's work with Citgo but later announced it no longer represented the oil company because of ``business conflicts.''
IVAC is gearing up for another round of protest letters -- this time to Edwards and fellow Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama following their statements at Monday's nationally televised YouTube debate. They left open the possibility of meeting with leaders of countries hostile to the United States, including Fidel Castro and Chávez.
IVAC President Ernesto Ackerman said it was unacceptable to meet with Chávez under any circumstances. ''You are either with a dictator or not with a dictator,'' he said.
Asked to respond to IVAC's concerns, Edwards spokeswoman Colleen Murray stressed that ``any meeting must be preceded by lower level diplomatic contact to ensure it would . . . not [be] misused for propaganda purposes.''
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasized her candidate wants to ''show how much we have to offer and how little Chávez has to offer'' through U.S. engagement in the region.
The presidential campaign activity is part of IVAC's broader push to motivate Venezuelan Americans to get involved in U.S. politics. The organization launched the effort after the Venezuelan opposition's crushing defeat in the December presidential elections left them convinced that Chávez had such tight control over government institutions that further political work in Venezuela was futile.
They look to the Cuban-American community, which grew from a band of struggling exiles to a powerful political group, as their model. Prominent Cuban Americans such as Cardenas have taken an anti-Chávez stance, seeing in the Venezuelans a counterpart to their own experience.
While Giuliani declined to meet with IVAC about Chávez and his firm's Citgo relationship, he wasn't able to ignore the issue when influential Cuban Americans discussed it with him at a fundraiser on June 21.
That same day, Giuliani's firm confirmed the relationship with Citgo had been severed.
Hialeah City Council President Esteban Bovo, a Cuban American and the co-chairman of Giuliani's Miami-Dade campaign, said that while the Venezuelan community is still in its political infancy, Venezuela's situation is nonetheless of growing significance in the 2008 presidential campaign landscape.
''I believe the issue of Chávez and Venezuela needs to be addressed by every single candidate, because this is the new Castro of this era. Only he may be more dangerous because he has petro dollars -- something Castro never had,'' Bovo said. ``That puts the Venezuelan-American community in a position of having to be paid attention to, and that in and of itself is political power.''