Venezuela is now number five on the list of countries sending the highest number of political asylum requests to the United States, a figure that skyrocketed between February 2014, when socialist President Nicolás Maduro began a violent repression campaign against peaceful activists, and today.
According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics, 590 Venezuelans requested political asylum in the United States, the most recent available statistics, as it takes up to two years to schedule an initial meeting to assess the case. Only China, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador submitted more political asylum cases to the U.S. agency. Before February 2014, Venezuela was outside the top ten nations submitting requests for political asylum.
While late dictator Hugo Chávez ran a repressive socialist regime during his tenure, his successor Nicolás Maduro has employed violence to attack hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protesters, escalating police violence in February 2014 following the arrest of opposition Popular Will Party leader Leopoldo López. López was found guilty of “inciting violence” and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
The prosecutor in the López case, Franklin Nieves, requested political asylum in the United States in October, asserting that all the evidence he presented before the court was false and López is innocent.
The Associated Press reports that nearly 6,000 Venezuelans have requested political asylum between February 2014 and June 2015. The deluge began in February 2014 and, by April, the number of requests had risen 1,156 percent. These figures are especially striking given that the number of Venezuelans living abroad in general increased from 50,000 to 1.2 million between the mid-1990s and 2013, before the current exodus began.
“It is impressive how in 10 years, Venezuelans went from being tourists in the United States to victims of political persecution,” lamented Julio Henríquez, Director of NGO Refugee Freedom Program. “Definitely, last year protests and its consequences, including detentions and tortures, have resulted in more Venezuelans fleeing the country,” added Alfredo Romero of the Venezuelan NGO Foro Penal.
Romero notes that many of the people requesting asylum, unlike Nieves, are not former political operatives or even overtly political actors in any way, but “housewives who demonstrate because of food shortages or students, or a woman such as Inés González, who posted a Twitter message.” Any Venezuelan who questions the wisdom of the socialist government is in danger. Police proved this poignantly in February 2015, a year after the violence began, with the shooting and killing of 14-year-old Kluiverth Roa after the teenager yelled “stop the repression” upon seeing a policeman beating a protester.
So who are the Venezuelans flocking to American shores?
More than 90 percent of Venezuelans flocking to the United States have college degrees, and 40 percent boast graduate-level education, according to Miami’s El Nuevo Herald. They have mostly moved to south Florida, where 260,000 reside. There, they have blended into the majority Cuban-American population. The Florida Sun-Sentinel notes that, politically, they are not a Republican monolith, but will support any politician who addresses the human rights abuses in their homeland:
Venezuelans in this country allied themselves with Cuban-Americans (Chavez was a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro) and pushed South Florida political leaders, Democratic and Republican, to champion efforts to tighten the screws on Chavez and Maduro. […]
Kevin Hill, a political scientist at Florida International University, said allegiance among Venezuelans is split fairly evenly among Republicans, Democrats and no party independent registration, something that makes it difficult to build enough political mass to influence elections.
“That’s totally the opposite of what the Cubans did in the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s. They were all Republicans then. They had a tremendously outsized influence on the Republican Party,” Hill said.
While President Obama signed an executive order declaring the Venezuelan government a national security threat, Republican politicians (particularly Cuban-American politicians) like Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have been significantly more vocal than their Democratic counterparts against the Venezuelan regime. Should this pattern continue, Venezuelans may present Republicans with a unique opportunity to court the diverse Latino vote.