By Roberta Rampton
DORAL, Fla. (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Friday listened to harrowing stories of deprivation, torture and escape from Venezuelans who fled their homeland, and pledged to ramp up pressure to help the opposition trying to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
In a visit to the largest community of Venezuelan exiles in the United States – and flanked by four prominent Florida Republican politicians – Pence rejected calls for talks with Maduro, and said all options were on the table to force him to leave.
“This is no time for dialogue. This is time for action,” Pence told a few hundred people at a rally in a local church, many of whom waved Venezuelan flags and shouted “Libertad!”
“The time has come to end the Maduro dictatorship once and for all,” said Pence, who has emerged as one of the strongest voices against the Venezuelan leader in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The U.S. government has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. Most Latin American countries have done so as well, while European governments are also throwing their support behind Guaido, albeit more cautiously.
Russia and China, among others, back Maduro, who has said National Assembly head Guaido’s self-declared claim to the presidency is an attempted U.S.-backed coup.
Maduro, who began a second term last month after elections last year that were dismissed by the West as a sham, has said he would be ready for talks with the opposition. Some countries, including Mexico and Uruguay, have offered to mediate.
Similar talks in the past have failed, and opposition leaders have said Maduro uses them to stall for time.
A former union leader who succeeded his charismatic mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, Maduro has overseen a shrinking economy and the migration of more than 3 million Venezuelans fleeing food and drug shortages and hyperinflation.
While most have left for other South American countries, thousands have made their way to southern Florida, joining migrants from Cuba and other parts of Latin America. They form an important voting constituency in a swing state often critical to the outcome of U.S. national elections.
Pence shared the stage with Republican senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, and Governor Ron DeSantis.
Pence said the United States was working to get more aid to Venezuela. The State Department last week promised a fresh $20 million in help, adding to the $140 million it has spent in neighboring countries grappling with the influx of refugees.
“The United States of America stands ready to deliver humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan people in Venezuela as well,” Pence said, adding that the administration would work with the opposition-run National Assembly to do so.
Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said in a tweet on Friday that the United States “will mobilize and transport humanitarian aid – medicine, surgical supplies, and nutritional supplements for the people of Venezuela.”
Before the campaign-style rally, Pence met with some exiled Venezuelans, including a man who said he spent years in prison where he was tortured, and a doctor who brandished a poster-sized photo of what he said was an emaciated child suffering from food shortages in the oil-rich country.
Mayra Lopez told Pence her family was scattered across Latin America. “Being here now at this moment, we see hope finally,” she said, speaking through a translator.
“We’re seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. And we believe this is the moment.”
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by David Alexander and Makini Brice; Editing by Mary Milliken, Rosalba O’Brien and Daniel Wallis)