TAMPA — Hundreds of Venezuelans living in the Tampa Bay area gathered Wednesday evening to show support for the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the nation's legitimate interim president.
Venezuelan flags as well as banners and signs bearing pro-democracy messages punctuated the gathering outside West Tampa's La Teresita Restaurant.
But demonstrators stood silent during the first moments to honor victims of the ongoing conflict in the South American nation. Seven deaths were recorded in Venezuela on Wednesday alone — the day Guaidó claimed the presidency and rejected claims of election victory by embattled socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Addressing the crowd in Spanish, speakers at the Tampa event included leaders of local organizations advocating for rights in Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
"The community of Tampa is supporting the actions in Venezuela, we are telling our families, our brothers and those who are there that we have not abandoned them," said Javier Torres, president of Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay. "We have become his voice in front of the American politicians and they have been receptive with the situation in Venezuela."
Retired U.S. Army Col. Orlando Rodríguez, who has fought against the Castro regime in Cuba and was imprisoned there after taking part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, said he hopes socialist Cuba also moves toward democracy soon.
"Today is a historic day," Rodríguez said. "Venezuela took a step of freedom, that symbolized a step also for the freedom of Cuba. When the Venezuelan regime falls, the fall of the Cuban regime will follow."
Among the other organizers and speakers at the Tampa demonstration were anti-Maduro activist Norma Camero-Reno, journalists Carlos Bohórquez and Hernán Lugo Galicia, and former Cuban prisoner Roberto Pizano.
Dozens of motorists passing by La Teresita honked their horns while demonstrators sang the national anthem of Venezuela.
"Never before had La Teresita waved another flag that was not the United States flag," said Belen Black, another member of Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay. "Today, La Teresita has the Venezuelan flag."
The demonstration also came on the day that the United States, Canada and a number of Latin American nations recognized Guaidó as the individual to lead a transitional government and organize new elections. Maduro responded by cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States, his biggest trade partner.
Two weeks ago, Maduro took the oath of office for a second six-year term in the face of widespread international opposition. Ever since, a reinvigorated opposition had been planning for demonstrations Wednesday — the anniversary marking the end of Venezuela's last military dictatorship in 1958.