Rep. Brendan Boyle and Fernando Torres talk Venezuela
The congressman and the president of Casa de Venezuela discussed what the U.S. can do about the ongoing humanitarian crisis and dictatorship that has led to tens of thousands fleeing the South American country.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (PA-13) and President of Casa de Venezuela Fernando Torres agreed that the ongoing Venezuelan humanitarian crisis is largely ignored in national politics, despite the fact that the situation impacts the U.S.’s close Latin American neighbor and its large natural energy source.
During an AL DÍA Talks segment on Aug. 23, Rep. Boyle and Torres discussed Venezuela’s collapse under dictator Nicolás Maduro and what steps U.S. foreign policy should be taking to aid the country and its neighbors, which have been struggling to handle influxes of Venezuelan refugees.
The congressman and Torres also spoke about political persecution in Nicaragua, a country facing similar threats to its democratic system, and what asylum protections Venezuelan Americans are looking for from their representatives here in the U.S. The full video conversation can be found here.
Casa de Venezuela is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the culture of the Venezuelan community in the Greater Philadelphia region and raising awareness about the worsening situation in the country.
Boyle, a Democrat, has represented Pennsylvania’s 13th District since 2015. Due to the redrawing of the state’s congressional map earlier this year, he is seeking in November reelection to the new 2nd District, which includes communities in North and Northeast Philadelphia.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Do you believe that the recent U.S.-pledged aid ($46 million since 2017) to Venezuela and its surrounding countries is enough support?
Rep. Brendan Boyle: One of the challenges that I think we face is, beyond all of the Trump saga that takes up a lot of oxygen, when we focus on the foreign affairs issues, you still have the remnants of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. You have the situation in North Korea. You have the ever-present agitation from Vladimir Putin... by the way, fighting is still going on in Ukraine. You have the Syrian war, which has claimed more than a half a million lives. You still have the instability in Egypt, Libya, etc.
My point is, with all of these things going on internationally, unfortunately what is happening right here in our own backyard in Venezuela is not getting nearly the attention in the mainstream media that it deserves. And when you consider where we are physically located as Americans, it is remarkable and also frustrating to me.
I have been trying to use my role as a member of Congress and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee to raise awareness on this issue, show why morally we need to do more and also why it is in our foreign policy interest to do more for the incredible destabilization that we are seeing now, which has really escalated just this week. It is reaching a boiling point and has serious consequences for us now and in the future.
President of Casa de Venezuela Fernando Torres: The massive exodus out of the country, whether it could be prevented or not, it is affecting every country that is not ready to accept that many Venezuelans… The resources given to neighboring countries is good, but what about inside of the country? What can we do to put pressure on it? We don’t even have a U.S. ambassador right now in Venezuela.
Political reasons are why the two countries don’t have ambassadors, but the aspects that we’re talking about with the congressman and different congressmen from different states are: how can we diplomatically put pressure on the administration, a government that went from a democratically-elected government, to an authoritarian government, then to dictatorship, flat out?
It’s one of the worst situations that I think Latin Americans have ever seen. I don’t think we have seen an exodus from any other country of this magnitude, that fast. A country that went from the richest country in Latin America, where it was like the United States and where immigrants arrived after World War II from all sorts of parts of the world, to the number-one exodus on our continent.
Venezuela’s neighboring countries are burdened by the influx of migrants to their systems. How and why is the U.S. supporting these countries?
Torres: An unstable Latin America could affect the U.S. even more. There are non-friends of the U.S. that like to go through those countries as much as they can, especially Russia, which has tried to get in through Venezuela. In my opinion, with the exodus, Colombia has seen the biggest struggle, but if you look through it, even Ecuador and Peru have had to change their laws because of the amount of Venezuelans coming through so fast. Yes, they’re leaving through Colombia, but they’re trying to get anywhere possible. Countries like Chile and Argentina have been a bit more friendly, giving work and permits to Venezuelans there.
For us Venezuelans - I’d say it’s almost like the U.S. - we all have some sort of mixed race in our background. Some of our culture is not comfortable to other countries because they’re not used to a mixed class. And of course, there are outsiders taking over. The leaders of other national movements of Latin American countries could come kicking in, which is worrisome, and more Venezuelans could get attacked just for being Venezuelan.
I truly believe the issue of Venezuela could cause a collapse. Colombia is already struggling because a million Venezuelans have arrived. One million. That’s a good percentage of the population that just grew overnight. Panama is another place where we have a lot of Venezuelans being attacked. Panama is one of the countries we used as an escape out of Venezuela. Here in the U.S., there’s over half a million Venezuelans already arrived. Venezuelans may have been 10, 20, 50 people, you could barely count them. And we have now surpassed 10,000 in our region alone.
We need to hopefully help educate the rest of our Congress to say look, Latin America is in our hemisphere. If we don’t pay attention to it, we don’t want another Cuban Missile Crisis, right? All those politically-unstable countries could open up for non-friends of the U.S. to come in.
Rep. Boyle: That was of course, the history of the whole Cold War era. From 1945 up until the early 1990s, we had the Soviet Union constantly playing around in our own backyard, taking advantage of the lack of stability in Latin America, whether it was in Cuba or Central America, it was not good for the U.S. and not good for those countries. We want to make sure we do not enable history to repeat itself there.
One country that I am especially concerned about is Colombia. It’s a country that’s already seen a depopulation with respect to its middle class. Are they really equipped to be taking in so many refugees? I don’t think Colombia is. I think that could have a destabilizing effect, a domino effect in the area. This just underscores what I already said: the need for the U.S. to pay greater attention to this issue and to devote more resources to it. It’s the right thing to do, number one, and number two, it is in our foreign policy interest to do so.
What would be the differences between a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) order for Venezuelans coming into the U.S. and an “adjusted status” bill as proposed in H.R.2161?
Torres: Let’s start with the bill. The bill would take long to pass, and of course, the president has to sign off. The current administration may not be as willing to do an immigration bill right now because it has tried negotiating its own immigration agenda and cannot get it through. The bill would be more strong than TPS; that would be our preference. There could be some adjustment on that bill. The current bill gives status to those who were in the U.S. before January 21, 2013, and we would like to adjust it to today’s date. Preferably, of course, that’s the one we would like to get through. If we could get Congress to agree with it, at least, that would be a big success. We’ll see in the next election whether we’ll get more friends of Venezuelan-Americans that would be willing to take that risk.
Rep. Boyle: I’m a supporter of both approaches. I’ve written a letter to Secretary Pompeo on this matter, as well as a number of others that affect Venezuela and Venezuelan Americans. I’m also a supporter of the legislation. Unfortunately, in both cases, the stumbling block is this administration.
In terms of the philosophy of TPS, those of us who are seeking to expand it are concerned. Forget expanding it — right now, it’s being restricted. Just ask the Nicaraguan community about that, who’ve had TPS protection ever since the massive hurricane in the late 90s, but then this administration has really moved backwards on TPS, not just for Nicaraguans but for a number of communities. Either approach you take, the challenge that we’re facing is this administration.
What is the role of opposition leaders in Venezuela who want to bring back democracy, and how does the U.S. support this democracy?
Torres: There’s some division of the opposition leaders. Some of them have a stronger approach and some of them have a more pacifist approach. It is a struggle for them because Venezuelans are just looking to survive today. Trying to eat every day and trying to feed their children every day. The water is getting hotter and hotter every day, and they’re just trying to survive, to breathe, instead of thinking, “What can we do to take over?” In reality, there’s still over 20 million Venezuelans there and if people go in the streets, they’ll take over. But the government has been able to find and support these arms groups to protect the regime. Around different cities, especially Caracas, they give a lot of arms, allotted to bad people to protect the regime.
But Venezuela doesn’t have free arms. Day to day Venezuelans don’t have arms for them to defend themselves. That’s why a year, year and a half ago, there were so many people dead, because there was a massive, pacifist-type protest, and they got attacked just about everywhere by the government with real weapons. So, it’s a fear. Some leaders are a little bit disjointed. I don’t know if the U.S. Congress is funneling cash to them. I don’t know if that would be open for the world to know, I have not seen any interaction.
Rep. Boyle: I hope that all of us as Americans are watching Venezuela and Turkey and are using those as cautionary tales of just how precious democracy is. And we shouldn’t have the false assumption that once you have democracy, you’re always going to have it. If you take it for granted, there are those who want to come along and turn a democracy into an authoritarian regime overnight.
The story about how you boil a frog — if you take a frog and throw it into boiling hot water, the frog will immediately jump out and resist. But, if you just turn up the temperature a little bit and a little bit more, a frog won’t notice, and that’s how a frog is boiled. That is unfortunately the way a society can lose a democracy: becoming a little bit more authoritarian, then next week a little bit more, then suddenly oppressed freedom. There was no country in Latin America that was a wealthier democracy than Venezuela. And now here we are, with no country having more struggles than it.
There is support the U.S. can offer to opposition leaders, but you have to be careful about this because if you take one side and not the other, then suddenly the U.S. is getting involved in the internal politics of another country.
Our support for one particular political party in another country may prove counterproductive. Whether it’s Iran or Venezuela or a number of other countries, one way of discrediting that opposition party is to make the allegation they are somehow the tool of the U.S. A tool of the evil U.S. regime. That has been a trope used by dictators throughout history, so we’ve got to be careful. We want to make sure we’re funding humanitarian efforts, we want to make sure we’re attempting to fund pro-democracy efforts, but at the same time, making sure we’re not taking sides between party X or party Y. It’s a tough balance to strike.
What does life look like for Venezuelans who remain in the country? Do they have any other choice but to flee at this point?
Torres: There’s still a few who have hope. My sister was telling me, the economy’s surviving through the Venezuelans who have left and are sending money back. She truly sees there are people who are eating today, but it’s sad to see doctors going through the back of restaurants to see what they can eat. In the few restaurants that are still there, at the end of the night the leftovers are being sold in the back of the building as food to people — these are the leftovers of somebody else. It’s something we’ve never seen in Venezuela. There’s a lot of poor countries in the world, but we never expected that in a rich country, with one of the largest oil reserves in the world, to go through that.
There’s a good education foundation in the country. There is still a generation that remembers what democracy is about. The concern now is that there’s also a generation that has never seen democracy. It’s been 20 years since this government took over, and of course, this generation always places the blame.
How these nationalist movements have started, protectionist movements have started, is very scary because they’re happening around the world now. Governments that were democratically-elected to begin with find rules to become authoritarian governments, and eventually are dictatorships, where they’re anti-media and they’re anti-political opponents. That’s an aspect that’s really worrisome, but there’s still Venezuelans who remember that. Those are the ones that have hope that the country can make it out. If this regime would get out and we institute a real constitutional government, there is still hope that the government can succeed because there are natural resources to survive.
What can you say to Venezuelan Americans who are skeptical of the socialist ideas suggested by members of the Democratic party?
Rep. Boyle: Social security was pushed by FDR, something that is well-accepted today. The right wing attacked it for decades, calling it socialism. When another Democratic president and Congress pushed for the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the right wing attacked it as socialism or socialized medicine. When President Obama came along with the Affordable Care Act, Republicans then and now oppose it and call it socialism. Instituting a minimum wage and labor unions, so workers can collectively bargain.
Not every sort of government action that’s geared toward trying to make things more fair for people and more just, not every action is automatically socialism, which, by the way, as I learned it in school, meant government takeover of industries. It meant government deciding how many widgets you’re going to make and not a private sector decision. I don’t know one of my fellow Democrats in Congress that would support the move to a full socialist system.
There’s a difference between full government control of industries, which is what you have in real socialist countries, and what those of us on the Democratic side are saying, which is that we should really spend more money in this country on education, have a more equal distribution of wealth, have higher average wages and not have people working 40 hours a week and still having to be at or below the poverty line with a minimum wage that hasn’t been increased in 10 years.
At the same time, the stock market is doing better than at any point in our nation’s history and the gap between the richest .01 percent is greater than any point in American history, and that’s not really the best representation of what we mean by capitalism, to have that sort of situation.
Frankly, you tend to see it more in Latin American countries, where you see a middle class hollowed out, you see a very small group of people who are elite and very wealthy, and then you have a lot of poor people.