DORAL, Fla. (AP) — Venezuelan exiles in Florida who oppose their country's socialist government jubilantly gathered Tuesday and cheered calls by opposition leader Juan Guaidó for a military uprising in their homeland.
"Long live Venezuela!" they chanted as dozens from the exile community packed a small diner in the Miami suburb of Doral, glued to news reports on their cellphones of the opposition bid against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Opposition calls for a revolt posed the most serious challenge yet to Maduro's rule after months of mostly peaceful protests led by Guaidó, who had previously declared himself interim president with the backing of the U.S. and other countries.
Florida is home to an estimated 190,000 Venezuelans, many having arrived over the past decade as Venezuela slid deeper into economic and political crisis under Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Nationally, the number of Venezuelan immigrants has nearly doubled since 2010 to more than 350,000.
Exiles who gathered in Doral wept and sang their national anthem, several sporting baseball caps with the stars and colors of the Venezuelan flag. Some said the developments spur hopes of returning soon, while others said they had been awaiting such a revolt. Many tied blue ribbons on their right arm that have become a symbol of opposition to Maduro's government.
Wilfredo Castillo, a 25-year-old medical doctor who arrived three months ago from a city in northern Venezuela, cried as he explained how he did not know what it was like to live in a free country.
"This gives me hope to go back and step back on my land, my homeland and be free," Castillo said.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida called for staunch U.S. government backing of the Venezuelan opposition as events unfolded, saying the United States "must be ready to supply humanitarian aid and defend freedom and democracy in Venezuela."
"Guaidó and the people of Venezuela have taken this critical step. We cannot abandon them. Inaction is not an option," Scott's statement said.
The Trump administration declared quick and enthusiastic support Tuesday for the Venezuelan opposition effort. In January, the U.S. government took the unusual step of recognizing Guaido, the opposition leader of the National Assembly, as interim president. It also imposed punishing sanctions on Venezuela.
One of those who gathered Tuesday was a popular Venezuelan comedian, Franklin Virgüez. He said fellow exiles have long been hoping for a call to revolt.
"It is a glorious moment that Venezuelans living abroad have been waiting for," Virguez said.
Democratic members of U.S. Congress from Florida gathered on Tuesday to express support to the people of Venezuela and urge Maduro to step down.
"I'm closely monitoring the situation as Venezuelans seek to restore legitimate democracy in their country," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. "I have heard heartbreaking stories from individuals who have fled violence, hunger, and a lack of medical resources in Venezuela— stories from members of my community in South Florida."
Thais Marquina hugged her friend at the crowded Venezuelan food joint in Doral as she wept and dried her eyes without taking off her sunglasses.
"It has been 20 years of oppression and finally we see the light— the path of freedom," she said.