To 'Rebrand' with Florida's Latino Voters, Allies Want Biden to Sell His Policies on the Ground

The Biden administration did something monumental for Venezuelans this week, many of whom live in Florida, by providing temporary protected status that would allow more than 320,000 Venezuelans living in the U.S. to have legal status, work and receive driver's licenses.

The response among lawmakers and activists who pushed at the local level and advocated for the previous administration to do the same thing was one of joy and relief that President Joe Biden had kept a campaign promise.

But for Democrats who saw how far the party fell in the state with Latino support in November, particularly among Venezuelans and Colombians who were told in Spanish-language ads and in disinformation on platforms like WhatsApp and YouTube that Biden was a card-carrying socialist hell-bent on turning the U.S. into the countries they fled, there is concern that the White House is not doing enough to rebrand and sell his accomplishment politically in south Florida and beyond.

Former congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell who fought for the TPS designation while in Congress, lauded Biden's move so Venezuelans "can stop living in fear" and provide for their families back in Venezuela, but said she would like to see a physical presence in Florida from the White House to sell the move.

"One of the important things for the administration to understand is our Latino culture is extremely personal, fosters close relationships, and there is a need to ensure they are present in our community," she told Newsweek. "I would love to see Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken come down here and hold face-to-face conversations with Venezuelans who will take the opportunity to thank him for taking this step."

In an interview with New York Magazine, Democratic data scientist David Shor said a precinct-level analysis revealed that areas with a high concentration of Venezuelan and Colombian voters, like south Florida, "saw much larger swings to the GOP than basically anywhere else in the country." In Doral, nicknamed Doralzuela by some for the large Venezuelan community, Trump won one precinct by 10 points in 2020, despite Hillary Clinton winning it four years earlier by 40 points.

Socialism has particular salience in those communities but the attack, while effective, was not new. In 2018, Republicans took the attack for a spin against Florida Democrats like gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who lost, along with former senator Bill Nelson. With the rise of Democratic socialists like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Trump campaign joined in with a YouTube ad that falsely claimed Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro support Biden and back when he had a Twitter account targeted Colombians with wild claims that Biden was a puppet of the "Castro-Chavistas like Crazy Bernie, AOC, and Castro-lover Karen Bass."

Beginning the process of clawing back some of that Latino support and responding to disinformation means the White House needs to fill that space with accurate and important information that has the added effect of being politically advantageous for Biden, Latino Democrats in Washington and Florida, said.

Nearly everyone who spoke with Newsweek took notice, for example, that the story announcing the TPS decision was published first by the Los Angeles Times and not the Miami Herald, which was viewed as a strategic blunder, because 53 percent of Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S. reside in Florida.

Florida Democrats said they feel they have a strong policy partner in the Biden administration, but not a strong political one. For example, Biden has not tweeted about the TPS move from his @JoeBiden or @POTUS accounts, nor was the news shared from the @WhiteHouse or @LaCasaBlanca accounts, with only the State Department Twitter account sharing a video about the new policy.

Venezuelans who didn't like Donald Trump still felt seen by his administration, some Florida Democrats said.

"What's different between former President Trump and President Biden is that Trump would have events at a church in Doral, or tweet something, or make a video about why he did this," said Democratic strategist Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, an expert on the disinformation channels aimed at Latinos in Florida. "Even those who didn't like Trump, still appreciated him because he brought back the dignity of a country that was being forgotten by the world by stating their issues and challenges."

Biden's "big heart," she argued, must be closely followed by "big words" and salesmanship.

Liz Rebecca Alarcón, a Venezuelan activist and founder of digital Latino news company Project Pulso said Biden took a really important step by "giving status to people who don't have a country to go back to" and by providing young people, including some in her family, with the ability to fulfill their hopes and dreams and aspirations of saving money and sending it back to Venezuela or finding a financial way forward for themselves.

But she described the news breaking in the Los Angeles Times as "part of the problem" for Democrats and invited those in the party who are "so perplexed" by the south Florida Latino vote "to spend time here and talk to people" rather than "leaving an information and relationship void."

"That also goes for President Biden and VP [Kamala] Harris," she added. "We need to hear more from them to grow trust and the feeling that they also care, the feeling that many had from Trump."

Venezuelans in the country as of Monday, March 8, when the announcement was made, are eligible for TPS and have 180 days to apply for the program, pay fees and prove their residence, the Department of Homeland Security said.

As Trump did, Blinken said the U.S. would continue to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the rightful president of Venezuela, and the White House reiterated that Biden has been very clear that President Nicolás Maduro is a dictator and that the May 2018 elections were "fraudulent and illegitimate."

Despite pressure to enact TPS for Venezuelans, including from Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio, Trump did not do so, waiting until his last day in office to instead offer Deferred Enforced Departure, or deferred deportation for Venezuelans that did not grant temporary status. Many believe the distinction was because Republicans largely believe TPS often becomes permanent due to ongoing crises in certain countries.

The White House declined to answer Newsweek questions related to the rollout of TPS and whether Biden or other administration leaders would work to bring attention to the policy change by visiting south Florida.

Asked by reporters about the political implications of the move, a senior administration official disputed the idea, calling it a "completely nonpartisan, bipartisan decision."

"It is not at all," the official said, speaking anonymously per rules of the background briefing. "The suffering and the ongoing turmoil that the Venezuelan people have endured is well documented. And that's neither Democrat nor Republican; there — this is based on what the conditions on the ground are."

But Florida Democrats believe the White House would be making a mistake by ignoring the obvious political implications of the move, especially with the 2022 midterm elections on the horizon.

Fernand Amandi, the top consultant for Obama's Latino voter polling during both campaigns, called the TPS announcement "potentially game-changing," but said Biden and Democrats are in need of messaging that counteracts the socialist label.

"Just because it's an absurd charge made by Republicans doesn't mean it's a charge that doesn't need to be confronted, explained and overcome," he told Newsweek. "Democrats can not make that mistake in Florida again."

Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said nothing makes him happier than talking about the shortcomings of Florida Democrats. Biden's move to grant TPS is a reflection of the political realities in Florida, Hartline said, but "nowhere near enough."

"Certainly Florida Democrats have problems with Hispanic outreach, and the Biden people are aware of it, but when they had a chance to do something in 2020 they flopped," he said, adding that Republicans have put in work in the state over decades, and are starting to see expanding support with Hispanic voters in Florida.

With the Biden administration slow to message on what the new TPS policy means for scores of Venezuelans, grassroots groups have stepped into the void.

Mi Familia Vota held an Orlando, Florida briefing Wednesday with Representative Darren Soto and lawyers to offer tips to the community that included 381 participants, which was more than 10 times the usual attendance the group sees for similar Zoom briefings, with the video on Facebook seeing "unprecedented" viewership and engagement through comments, the organization said.

"It was all organic," a Mi Familia Vota spokesman said. "There was a real hunger for information in the community."

tps venezuela
A man holds a placard that reads "Thank you JoeBiden. TPS for Vzla" as he gathers to celebrate the granting of a temporary protected status (TPS) to Venezuelans by US President Joe Biden administration in front of El Arepazo resturant in Miami, Florida on March 9, 2021. - The United States will allow potentially tens of thousands of Venezuelans to seek refuge, in a significant policy shift from the former Trump era, officials said March 8, 2021. Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is being offered to people who fled political repression and economic chaos in the once wealthy South American country. Eva Marie UZCATEGUI / AFP/Getty Images