The Venezuelan-American Vote, From a First-Timer

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MIAMI — This year I’ll be voting for the first time in a U.S. presidential election. Registering to vote online, the option to mail-in my ballot or vote early — it’s all new to me.

The last time I voted, in 2013 in Caracas, Venezuela, I lined up for hours under the blazing hot sun, surrounded by heavily armed soldiers, to cast my vote against Nicolás Maduro. After depositing my ballot in a box, I dipped my pinkie finger in purple ink, visible proof that I’d voted.

Yet I couldn’t help feeling dejected. An ink stain means nothing when your vote won’t count because the ruling party is determined to stay in power no matter what.

In the years since, over four million Venezuelans have fled their country amid the economic and humanitarian crisis wrought by Mr. Maduro’s policies. I’m part of this new wave of Latin American immigrants who now call Miami home. In the past four years, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the growing echoes here of the authoritarianism I endured back home — polarization, attacks on the press, the scapegoating of immigrants, casting doubt over the electoral system. I’ve watched this movie before.

This spring I became a citizen, putting me among the just over three percent of the Florida electorate that is Venezuelan-American, according to Equis Research. In this battleground state, where roughly 26 percent of the population is Latino, the vote of people of Puerto Rican, Cuban, Colombian, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan origin could be decisive. In 2016, Donald Trump narrowly carried Florida with a little over 48 percent to Hillary Clinton’s 47 percent. While she won the overall Latino vote, roughly half of Cuban voters backed Mr. Trump.

Venezuelan-Americans are deeply divided and worried about the results of this election — not just because of what it could mean for us here, but also how it will affect our home country.

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While the Obama-Biden administration was largely inattentive to the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, Mr. Trump has the support of many Venezuelan-Americans in part because of the economic embargo his administration imposed. He sealed the deal when he formally recognized the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela, and invited him to the State of the Union address.

The Trump campaign is now banking on anti-socialist talk to rally these voters. He has accused Mr. Biden of being “weak on socialism,” and “a puppet of Castro-Chavistas.” Billboards along the city’s highways read: “Vota Trump 2020. No Socialism.” It’s a message that resonates for traumatized Venezuelans still reeling from Mr. Maduro’s brand of socialism.

The polarization that we saw in Venezuela has also migrated here along with us. Every morning, I wake up to a blast of political WhatsApp messages from family and friends. In a recent two-minute voice message my mom forwarded to me, a well-known Venezuelan political pundit angrily proclaimed that any Venezuelan who votes for Joe Biden is basically supporting Mr. Maduro and the policies of Hugo Chávez.

The cacophony reverberates beyond WhatsApp. On Oct. 2, Erika de la Vega, a Venezuelan-American TV host and a first-time voter, said on a late-night talk show that she supported the Biden-Harris ticket and likened Mr. Trump to Chávez. The fallout on social media was swift. My Instagram was filled with messages that Ms. de la Vega “doesn’t love Venezuela,” while others declared that supporting Mr. Biden “is the same as supporting Mr. Maduro.”

But Carla Bustillos, who migrated to the United States in 1998 and is vice chair of Venezolanos Con Biden, sees uncomfortable parallels between Mr. Trump and the regime in Caracas. “For Venezuelan-Americans, as soon as you hear someone identify or label the press as the enemy it brings you flashbacks of a terrible nightmare that was Hugo Chávez,” she said. The issues Mr. Biden is campaigning on show that he’s concerned with growing inequality, she told me: “He really wants to offer people a chance at the American dream, and that’s something Venezuelan-Americans identify with.”

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Mr. Biden visited Florida for the first time as Democratic nominee in September. He made the case that would be a better president for Latinos, highlighting his commitment to immigration reform and a new plan to support Puerto Rico’s economy. He has also poured $23 million into local TV ads.

But the push may have come too late to regain lost ground. The Trump campaign and its surrogates have made deeper inroads in the neighborhoods that surround me. Like Trump-Pence signs, pseudo political experts have popped up everywhere on social media and traditional outlets like Spanish radio, spreading a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories that tie the Biden campaign to an evil axis of Cuba, Iran, China, George Soros and even Bill Gates.

Venezuelans who can vote in the United States need to see beyond the bluster and look at the way Mr. Trump has treated our community in the United States. Though he has said that “all options are on the table” for Venezuela, he has yet to deliver. Senate Republicans have repeatedly blocked legislation that would grant eligible Venezuelans “temporary protected status,” allowing them to live and work legally in the U.S. for a limited time without threat of deportation.

From last October to March nearly half of asylum claims made by Venezuelans were denied, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. What’s more, the Trump administration has deported an unknown number of Venezuelan refugees via third countries, in possible violation of U.S. law and policies.

Those are the facts that should be front and center while making a decision at the polls, not buzzwords like communism and socialism.

Around lunch time on Friday I drove to my designated voting site at the Vizcaya Museum complex. Reggaeton pulsed out of the windows of cars pulling into the lot; volunteer poll workers cheered us on. While I waited in line to cast my vote, I thought about which candidate has helped my community both in the diaspora, and in Venezuela.

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When at last it was my turn, a volunteer helped me verify my early voting certificate. “We have a first timer!” she yelled out and people clapped in response. As I stuck my “I voted!” sticker to my shirt, I was overcome with emotion. In an election where it feels as if everything is at stake, I am reminded of how fragile democracy is and what a privilege it is to vote.

Mariana Atencio (@marianaatencio), is a journalist and a co-founder of GoLike, a multimedia production company.

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