POLITICS

Florida Venezuelans rally supporters for Rubio, viewing him as champion for their interests

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio with supporters of the  Venezuela opposition on February 28, 2014 in Doral, Florida.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio with supporters of the Venezuela opposition on February 28, 2014 in Doral, Florida.  (2014 Getty Images)

Inside a storefront on Coral Way and Southwest 70th Street in Miami that's been converted into the Marco Rubio Victory office, Ernesto Ackerman is on the phone with a voter, making his case for reelecting the Cuban-American U.S. senator. 

"The senator is locked in a very close race," Ackerman informed the voter. "We really need you to go to your precinct and make sure Rubio still represents us."

A Venezuelan-American owner of a medical supply store with wispy white hair and round-rimmed glasses, Ackerman has been making calls for at least two hours every day since Florida voters began receiving mail-in ballots in early October. 

"My wife has scolded me for spending more time here than at our company's office," Ackerman said. "Venezuelans like myself are very appreciative of the arduous work Sen. Rubio has done for us. That's why we have a group across the state doing what we can to keep him in office."

Ackerman is among 130 Venezuelan-born U.S. citizens in seven Florida counties who are mobilizing for Rubio. 

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Some, like Ackerman, are making calls to Latino Republican voters, encouraging them to turn in their mail-in ballots or go to the polls. Others are canvassing neighborhoods to get out the vote.

"Marco has been an outspoken leader on behalf of the Venezuelan community," Ackerman said. "He is constantly bringing awareness to the strife and chaos that has swept over Venezuela. Marco continues to fight on behalf of the Venezuelan people and hold the [President Nicolas] Maduro regime accountable for their abuses of power and human rights violations."

Most recently, Rubio urged President Barack Obama to sanction a former Venezuelan interior minister and two Venezuelan electoral commission officials over human rights abuses by imposing visa bans against them and freezing their financial assets in the United States.

"Venezuelans are very happy with the senator's efforts to bring attention to our cause," Ackerman said. "He's committed to restoring democracy in Venezuela and winning the release of political prisoners targeted by Maduro."

Unwavering support for Rubio among Venezuelan-Americans stands in contrast to the senator's struggles to reach the growing Latino electorate in the Sunshine State.

A recent bipartisan survey of 800 likely Latino voters by the Republican-leaning Tarrance Group and Democratic-leaning Bendixen & Amandi International found that Rubio is losing the state's overall Hispanic vote by six points to his opponent, Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy. 

Rubio has been able to stay ahead of Murphy overall because the senator has stronger support among non-Hispanic white voters.

Annie Gamardo, a 50-year-old Venezuelan-American, says a majority of the 130 volunteers are in Miami-Dade and Orange counties, where the state's highest concentration of Latino Republicans resides. 

"The first week, we called voters who had requested [mail-in ballots] to remind them to fill them out and mail them as soon as possible," she said. "Now, we are calling people to go out and early vote. And in this final weekend, we will remind those who still haven't voted that November 8 is their last chance."

Gamardo previously volunteered for Rubio's 2010 U.S. Senate campaign and his presidential one earlier this year. 

She puts in about two to three hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

"We are providing Sen. Rubio with all the support we can muster," Gamardo said. "He has always been there for us. Without him, we are lost."

Francisco Alvarado is a freelance journalist in South Florida.

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