• Maibort Petit

The Venezuelan Challenge for the U.S.

Venezuela has promoted economic, political and military alliances with China and Russia, Iran and Turkey that represent a clear threat to the region and to the national security of the United States.

Our objective is to document and expose the dangers posed by these threats not only for the common interests of the United States and the suffering Venezuelan people, but also for the reestablishment of a constructive binational relationship for the benefit of the peoples of both nations.

by Casto Ocando

The relationship of Venezuelans with the US, and particularly with Florida, far from what most people assume, did not begin in the happy decade of the 70s, with the invasion of the malls and parks of Miami and Orlando, not even in the times of the Perejimenista dictatorship in the 50s, when many tourist from the South American country began to taste the pleasures of Miami Beach, but more than 200 years ago, when the first Venezuelan boot stepped on the then distant lands of Pensacola, in 1781, to protect it from English harassment.

Accompanying the expedition of the Spanish general Juan Manuel Cajigal, who came from Havana to protect the Pensacola fort, the Caracas proto hero Francisco de Miranda not only participated in the first political-military adventure of a Venezuelan in current North American territory, but also began without know it, a long, fruitful and controversial relationship with what is now considered the navel of Latin America.

Simon Bolivar, the revered South American hero born in Caracas, was so interested in the young United States. This interest was the reason that he came to visit from October, 1806 to January 1807, to understand by himself all he could about the nascent and already impressive nation. He visited Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington before embarking at Charleston, South Carolina, for La Guaira.

Simon Bolivar
Simon Bolivar

Even though no record of Bolivar’s personal impressions about this visit survived, his later references to the United States were ones of affection and gratitude, according to American historian William R. Shepherd.

During the years of fight for the Venezuelan independence from Spain, Bolivar achieved a level admiration among Americans so great that dozens of towns, counties, roads were named after him in places like Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, New York, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.

One of the most interesting episodes of this connection occurred in 1817, 36 years after the Miranda’s odyssey, when the Venezuelans Pedro Gual and Lino Clemente participated in the short-lived creation of the Republic of The Floridas, which sought to liberate from Spanish rule what was today is the state of Florida, exactly what they were trying to do in the Captaincy General of Venezuela.

Florida was a country
Republic of Florida

Gual and Clemente raise the Venezuelan tricolor flag on the island of Amelia, in the extreme northeast of Florida, when Miami was nothing more than a tribe of Indians and adventurers, proclaiming Venezuela's support for a liberation enterprise that ended in failure, but created the conditions that made possible the selling, of the Florida territories under control of Spain, to the United States in 1824, seven years after the invasion.

In the 19th century, many Americans lived in Venezuela, like Dr. Henry Price, from Scottsville, Virginia, who traveled to La Guaira and then to the southern lands of the Orinoco river with the intention of establishing a cotton empire (that never came to fruition).

Likewise, many Venezuelans, among them prominent personalities, were living in the United States long before Miami was created as a city in 1895.

One of the most notable was the three-time president and hero of Venezuelan Independence José Antonio Páez, an ambitious military leader who lived his old age in Manhattan until he died in 1876 at the age of 83, due to a poorly cured pneumonia caused by the cold wind he was exposed to while horseback riding through New York’s Central Park.

Another prominent Venezuelan considered to be a genius pianist, soprano, composer and conductor, Teresa Carreño, lived a life of privilege in the Big Apple, where she arrived with her family in 1862 as political asylee. Mrs Carreño made her first stage appearance in New York during the Civil War when she was only 8 years old. After an extensive and controversial career that involved worldwide concerts and four husbands, she died at her apartment in the Upper West Side in Manhattan, in 1917.

Venezuelan pianist
Teresa Carreño played for President Lincoln in White House

It was especially after World War I, when the oil boom broke out with the astonishing Barroso II well’s burst in Cabimas, in December, 1922 -that pour high quality petroleum for an uninterrupted 9-days period-, when Florida began to forge itself as a massive destination for Venezuelan travelers.

The first regular flights between Venezuela and the United States began two years later, in 1924, when the seaplanes of the German-Colombian airline Scadta inaugurated the La Guaira-Maracaibo-Barranquilla-Havana-Key West-Miami route.

These were the early days of the proverbial Venezuelan oil wealth and the regime of General Juan Vicente Gómez, a dictator that ruled Venezuela for 28 years (1908-1936) and who, according to the eminent intellectual Mariano Picón Salas, “just left us in the civilization of the automobile and some planes and hydrofoils still slow, which covered the odd national route, or ventured to Miami, Florida”.

At the beginning of the 1930s, there were Venezuelans asylees living in South Florida, escaping from the Gomez’s dictatorship, among them journalist Luis Martínez, an activist who went into exile in Coral Gables and directed a newspaper, Socorro Rojo(Red Help), to combat the dictatorship in the same way as many Venezuelans have done to combat Chavista authoritarianism since the early 2000’s on.

At the end of Gomecism, a civic-military Junta removed the ruler Isaías Medina Angarita from power in 1945, after Diógenes Escalante, Venezuelan ambassador to Washington that had been selected as presidential successor in Venezuela, lost his reason and ended up, thanks to the intervention of his friend Harry S. Truman, in a psychiatric hospital in Miami, where he died completely alienated in 1964.

In the 1950s, Miami benefited for the first time from the avalanche of compulsive-buyer Venezuelan tourists, who spentmillions in goods and properties in the US, thanks to the oil boom created by the Korean War and the Suez Crisis, which raised oil prices to stark levels.

Caracas was such a wealthy city that even the secretaries traveled on weekends to do their grocery shopping in Miami, according to the chronicle of an astonished American journalist sent by Time magazine to Caracas, to report on Venezuelan’s first oil boom.

General Marcos Pérez Jiménez himself, overthrown in 1958 after leading an iron dictatorship for 10 years, had planned a golden exile in the peaceful canals of Indian Creek, in Miami Beach, where he built a huge $400,000 mansion at a short distance from the famed Fontainebleau Hilton.

Pérez Jiménez would star in a unique Hollywoodesque story worthy of James Bond during the five years that he lived in Miami. He maintained close contacts with active anticommunist conspirators, with whom he cooperated in an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro.

He was also associated with the fearsome Miami Mafia bosses, including the infamous Johnny Roselli and Meyer Lansky. The FBI itself put him on its surveillance radar, not only because of his intense coup activities against the nascent democracy in Venezuela, but because he was on the list of possible suspects in the conspiracy to assassinate president John F. Kennedy.

Federal agents had serious reasons to base their suspicions on him. Pérez Jiménez hated the Kennedy brothers, especially Bob Kennedy, who held the position of US Attorney General at the time. The General was facing an extradition request from the government of Rómulo Betancourt, who wanted to try him in Venezuela for corruption. Bob Kennedy was doing everything possible to extradite him back to his country.

When Secretary of State Dean Rusk authorized the "removal" procedure, the General was incarcerated in the federal jail in downtown Miami, before being sent on a special flight to Caracas in 1963.

Long before the 1974 oil crisis turned Venezuelan pockets into the fullest on the continent, Venezuelan capitalists were among the finance elite in South Florida.

When Cubans began to arrive en masse in the early 1960s after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, Venezuelans controlled an important part of the banking businesses, among them the Caracas aristocrat and powerful billionaire J.J. González Gorrondona, who founded the first Venezuelan bank in the mid-1950s in Fort Lauderdale.

The Venezuelan currency Bolivar, which was priced at 3.28 per dollar, had the power to open all doors, mainly those of the US embassy in Caracas, which at the end of the 1960s tried to convince Venezuelan travelers that for the same price as a tourist visa, they could acquire the residence card or green card at once on the spot.

The incredible flow of money attracted numerous American businessmen and companies to the Venezuelan capital, especially energy firms and real estate brokers. There were many who sold entire buildings that had not yet been built, to Venezuelan clients who gathered to drink scotch at the Tamanaco Hotel, and were willing to sign checks just by looking at the construction plans.

In this way, entire developments built in areas like Kendall or on Fontainebleau Boulevard were sold, almost exclusively to Venezuelan clients, long before they were actually built. The same occurred to properties being built in places like Katty, Texas, and Queens, New York.

Venezuela's link with Florida became so codependent that after the sharp drop in oil prices at Easter 1982, which led to the first devaluation of the Bolívar, the Miami Herald revealingly headlined on its front page: “Venezuela in bankrupt, Miami bankrupt.”

Miami has also been a controversial city in Venezuelan politics. Many of the protagonists of the most notorious corruption scandals had as their final destination the golden exile in the capital of Latin America.

Even a Dade County mayor in the 1980s, Xavier Suárez, was plagued by the proverbial Venezuelan corruption, in a murky election funding case that nearly cost him his job.

This controversial binational relationship entered the 1990s at a particular crossroads.

As the economic crisis progressed, Venezuelans went from wayward shoppers to more restrained travelers. Still with the prestige of being Florida's first commercial clients, thousands of Venezuelans began to come to Miami to look for work in places they previously visited as tourists.

It was the beginning of a migratory movement that had important milestones in 1989, 1992 and 1996, and which reached historic levels with the arrival of Chávez in 1999.

The phenomenon was visible in various ways, but mainly due to the strong demographic presence and the intense economic activity of Venezuelans in South Florida, elements that denote the first community of Venezuelans to settle abroad since the creation of Venezuela as Captaincy General in 1777.

The increasing influence of this community started in the 2010s to be noticed in the local political life, with the election of Luigi Boria as the first Mayor of Venezuelan origin, in the city of Doral, best known now as Doralzuela.

It was the second time a Venezuelan has been elected as a public officer in the United States. The record belongs to Enrique García Branger, who was elected as a councilman of the village of Key Biscayne back in 2002.

The influence of Venezuelans in the United States did not confined to the political arena during the Chavista years between 1999 to 2012.

Not only there was a spike of corruption cases prosecuted by federal agencies linked to Venezuelan institutions like the oil giant Pdvsa and the Minister of Finance. Also a growing trade of drugs entering the U.S. from Venezuela arose as one of the most concerning threats to the U.S. national security.

With the ascent of Nicolas Maduro to power, U.S.-Venezuela relationship has become way more problematic. Since 2014, when he took power to succeed Chavez in power, the Maduro regime as produced an increase of corruption and drug trafficking, and the country has become a haven for terrorist groups like Colombian guerrillas ELN and FARC, and Iranian military forces like the Republican Guards, among other foreign backed militias.

Also the increasing influence of countries like Cuba, China and Russia is having serious consequences for the U.S.

As situation in Venezuela worsen, and a massive migration estimated in over 5 millions of expatriates is causing dismay in the region and reaching US soil in record amounts, the once constructive and fruitful relationship between the countries is rapidly becoming a real threat that must be contained.

(*) Investigative Reporter, Editor and Author, editor in chief of the news website primerinforme.com and president of the Venezuelan American Archives Foundation. He lives in Miami, FL.

To be continued .....

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