Vice President Mike Pence hinted Wednesday at soon-to-come economic sanctions against the Venezuelan government, but he offered little in the way of specifics of what a more robust U.S. response might look like or when it might come, choosing instead to deliver a broader message of hope to increasingly despondent Venezuelans.
Pence indicated the Trump administration intends to further punish Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his loyalists for undermining the South American country's democracy. Economic sanctions, perhaps aimed at restricting trade in Venezuelan debt in dollars, could come as early as this week, the Miami Herald has learned. But Pence did not detail any potential penalties.
"Our resolve is unwavering; our conviction is clear" Pence told a few hundred people at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral, Miami's Venezuelan immigrant hub. "You may be assured: Under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the United States of America will continue to bring the full measure of American economic and diplomatic power to bear until democracy is restored in Venezuela."
The crowd, which had waited hours for Pence, responded with enthusiastic bursts of applause. Women with the tricolor Venezuelan flag draped over their shoulders appeared to be channeling energy built up over months of worry about their country's prolonged political crisis.
"¡Libertad!" they chanted.
Pence spent the day in Doral to bookend his recent swing through Latin America, where regional U.S. allies pledged to also pressure Maduro. The vice president noted with satisfaction that Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela announced Tuesday that Venezuelans will be soon be required to obtain travel visas into his country — a move denounced by Maduro's government.
"Venezuelans' contribution to the Panamanian economy is undisputed," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza wrote Tuesday on Twitter, "but after VP Pence's visit, the order has been given."
Pence's trip last week was nevertheless complicated by President Trump's offhand Aug. 11 suggestion that his administration has not ruled out a "military option" against Venezuela. The presidents of Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama, speaking for jittery leaders across a region far too familiar with past U.S. interventions, were forced to publicly rebuke Trump in Pence's presence.
In Miami, Pence was eager to leave Trump's cringeworthy remark behind. He spent about an hour Wednesday at the U.S. Southern Command, privately debriefing military commanders about his trip and thanking local service members.
"While President Trump has said that 'We have many options for Venezuela,'" Pence said, in his only nod to the controversy, "we remain confident that working with all of our allies across Latin America, we can achieve a peaceable solution to the crisis facing the Venezuelan people."
Before delivering his 25-minute speech, the vice president — joined by Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Gov. Rick Scott — spent more than an hour listening to 15 local Venezuelans who gathered in a church meeting room to tell Pence, often in vivid detail, about violence, repression and political persecution carried out by Maduro's security forces or their allies.
María Eugenia Tovar fought back tears as she told Pence how her 22-year-old daughter, Génesis Cardona, was killed during a 2014 protest by a gunshot to the head. Francisco Márquez recounted the four months he spent as a political prisoner, in "what I can only describe as a putrid, mosquito-infested jungle."
"I got dengue fever. I was made to run amid gunfire, just to mess with my head," Márquez said. "I shared prison cells with people that talked about how they were beaten for hours. How they put a Ziploc bag over their head with insecticide. How women had been raped."
Two exiled judges, Antonio Marval Jiménez and Alejandro Rebolledo, were present. So were three opposition mayors — Warner Jiménez of Maturín, Gustavo Marcano of Lechería and Ramón Muchacho of Chacao — who fled to Miami after courts sentenced them to prison for failing to curtail street protests. They urged Pence for further U.S. action to punish Venezuela for installing a new legislative assembly Aug. 4 that usurped the opposition-held parliament's powers.
"We're fighting against gangsters," said Jiménez, who said he left the country by boat and got caught in a frightening storm off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago. "We'd like to ask for your help. Please don't let Venezuela turn into another Cuba."
Pence stared his guests intently, an interpreter translating into his ear. To each person, he offered words of solace and reiterated the administration's commitment to doing more.
"The United States is helping," Pence said. "And more help is on the way."
Under consideration by the White House this week is banning any trades in U.S. dollars of Venezuelan debt, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. That's the sort of financial sanction — short of prohibiting Venezuelan oil imports and exports — that Rubio and other South Florida politicians have pushed to starve Maduro of cash. The Treasury Department has already slapped individual financial and travel restrictions on 30 Venezuelans tied to the government.
Pence did not delve into any specifics about upcoming action. But Diaz-Balart and Rubio praised the White House for imposing four rounds of individual sanctions in seven months in office.
"I have 100 percent confidence that the president and vice president of the United States will take the appropriate measures," Rubio said. "They will do it at the right time, and they will do it in the right way, but they will do it. It is going to happen."
No one received a more raucous welcome than Rubio, who got an extended standing ovation at the church before he addressed Venezuelans in English and then Spanish from a lectern in front of the pulpit.
"I am confident that one day, in a Venezuela that is free, many of us will be able to gather in a setting such as this," Rubio said.
"Amen!" a man yelled from a pew.