MIAMI — As the 2020 election season begins to heat up, both political parties are vying for the support of an estimated 200,000 Venezuelans living in the state of Florida.

While Latino voters nationally have leaned Democratic, Republicans in the Sunshine State continue to make gains with voters who immigrated from South America. The Trump administration's Venezuela policies are resonating differently across this key demographic, which could have the potential to shift the state's political landscape in the upcoming presidential election.

"I came here 20 years ago when (Hugo) Chavez was elected when I realized what the situation was," said Helena Poleo, now a Miami-based Democratic consultant.

Poleo watched from afar as her family's magazine and newspaper business was shut down by the Chavez regime and the recent political turmoil under Nicolas Maduro.

"I send home every month a box of food and basic medicines for my family," explained Poleo, who is now an American citizen.

The state's Venezuelan community is the largest in the United States, and that is evident particularly in South Florida. The stars and colors of the Venezuelan flag are displayed front and center in Ernesto Ackerman's warehouse, where he runs a medical supplies business in Miami.

"February 1989 - that's when I decided to leave Venezuela because I saw it coming," Ackerman said in an interview with Spectrum News.


Ernesto Ackerman doing inventory of medical supplies inside his warehouse in Miami. (Credit: Vincent Pecoraro)


Ackerman became an American citizen 10 years later and has since co-founded a grassroots organization called Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, or IVAC. He also left family behind in the South American country. His 96-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor, has been trapped inside her apartment for months after the elevator in her building went out of service. 

"Last time I spoke to her, she told me she is living the same like in a concentration camp. She cannot get the food she wants to eat, she cannot get the medicine if I don't send her the medicine from here in the United States," he said.

While these two Venezuelan-Americans come from similar backgrounds and are outspoken in their opposition to the regimes of Chavez and his successor, Maduro, they have very different ideas about how the U.S. should be handling the situation back home. The U.S. recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president nearly a year ago and has slapped economic sanctions on the South American country, with the aim of removing Maduro from office. Ackerman believes this is the best course of action. 

"In three years and a half, President Trump did much more than eight years of President Obama," he explained.

"I'm one of the persons that wish for a humanitarian intervention in Venezuela, but I don't want the Marines to go alone and kill people there. It has to be a force of the countries of the region that are having this situation with Maduro," Ackerman added.

However, Poleo believes the Trump administration hasn't gone far enough.

"At the beginning the Trump Administration said all options are on the table. People immediately thought that there would be military action, which in fact was incorrect. Maduro is still in power and people are still being persecuted,” she said.

As the Democratic primary process is set to begin in a little under a month, Latin American voters in this key swing state have a personal and emotional association with the term socialism, shaped by the authoritarian regimes they fled. 

"Either we finally go to the left or we finally stay like we are. Democratic country, freedom of speech or we go to socialism," said Ackerman, who is a registered Republican.

Republicans this cycle are increasingly using this label, describing Democrats as anti-capitalists and leftists.

"America will never be a socialist country," Vice President Mike Pence said to a crowd of Latino voters in Miami in early June 2019, one day ahead of the first Democratic debate. 

Poleo, who will have the opportunity to vote for the first time in a general election this cycle, believes this label is misleading.


El Nuevo País y Zeta, the newspaper and magazine business owned by Helena Poleo’s family, was forced to close in 2017.


"It's just a way to bring up these emotions that Cubans and Venezuelans and Nicaraguans feel against socialism," Poleo said. "When the reality is that neither the Castros nor the Maduro or Chavez are really socialists. What they are is a Narco terrorist regime made out of murderers."

Over the last few months, there's been a growing push for temporary protected status for Venezuelans fleeing the country. While the House of Representatives passed a bill that would grant this status, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. However, it has been the administration's inaction on TPS that is most disappointing for Poleo.

"The Trump administration seems to not really have any real inkling to help the Venezuelans in the United States because this is something that they could solve very easily," she said.

Ackerman, on the other hand, disagrees. He thinks solving the problems the country is currently facing should be more of a priority.

"I would like to know how TPS will help the 30 million Venezuelans that are stuck in Venezuela. It would not help in any way. What's going to happen is what happened to the Cubans in '59 and '60. Everybody left, they left the country to the dictators. Sixty years later, nothing is happening. I don't want that to happen in Venezuela," he said.

In a state that President Trump won by 113,000 votes in 2016, this community's support could prove to be pivotal. Ackerman and Poleo's perspectives illustrate the current divide within the Venezuelan community in the Sunshine State.

"Some members of the community support the Trump administration, no matter what. And a lot of us are Democrats. But, many of us did support the Trump administration initially, but we have been disappointed that the Maduro Regime is more entrenched in power," Poleo said.

What happens in Latin America over the next 11 months and how the U.S. responds could have significant sway with this group of voters.