Venezuelans In Florida Raise Awareness Of Escalating Violence Back Home

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Almost 800 people — many dressed in yellow, blue, and red Venezuelan national colors — bowed their heads in silence Tuesday night for the 16 lives lost in their homeland's ongoing string of violent clashes between pro- and anti-government activists.

After the solemn moment of silence, some plugged in their headphones, some stretched and others draped themselves with Venezuelan flags. Then, in unison, they literally took off down the street.

“We are running for the goal of peace for our country of Venezuela," said William Vargas, 34, who emigrated to Miami from Caracas in 1993.    

"Basically what we are trying to do is to get people to notice, to get curious about, what is going on in Venezuela," said Vargas, donning a Venezuelan baseball cap.

The marathon runner and his group of friends are members of the Brickell Run Club — a popular Miami running club — that puts on a 5k run every Tuesday night for the past 3 years through the namesake fashionable Miami district.

But the typically jovial gatherings have turned somber the last two weeks, given what's been taking place in Venezuela, which many of the group's runners originally called home. Venezuelan-Americans in Miami, who comprise a large part of the group, are using the runs as a way to send out a message of hope and peace for their homeland, without pushing a political agenda.

They come up with the idea of using the runs as a message of solidarity with the Venezuelan people, then took their suggestion to Frankie Ruiz, the Miami running icon who founded the Brickell Run Club as well as the director of the Miami Marathon.

“We think that the Venezuelan cause needs another week of Run Club support and awareness," Ruiz posted last week on the group's Facebook page. "The videos coming out of Venezuela are horrible and support for peace in Venezuela needs more attention from those living in Miami. We will be encouraging runners to wear Venezuelan colors (Yellow, Blue, Red, White) this Tuesday once again."

Vargas, the runner who migrated in to Miami in 1993, said he took personal pride in the runs, feeling they accomplish a greater purpose.

"What makes this particular run different, tonight and last week, for the first time, we are actually raising awareness …for people to find out exactly what's going on in Venezuela,” Vargas said, as a friend with a “We Run Miami” T-Shirt waved a Venezuelan flag.

“This is a show of support for peace. It is not to make a statement on whether you are on one side of the issue or the other,“ said Ruiz, who's Cuban-American but enthusiastically supported the idea and made it a mission to spread word of the runs for Venezuela on social media

"Peace is what everyone should be working towards. I think that's the message: Support for peace in Venezuela,” Ruiz said.

Unlike hundreds of others that showed up, Mirjana Cardozo, 26, is actually not a runner. She does ride her bike occasionally but it was her first time putting on running sneakers. Even so, she felt compelled to take part in the event, noting she does know all about running anyway.

It was 13 years ago, she said, she and her father were kidnapped. Lucky for them, they were released and then fled to the United States. Then when she returned to Venezuela in 2009, she was almost kidnapped again, she said.

“My family is still over there. My mother is still over there. I’m always worried because I don’t know what’s going on.” Cardozo said. "I saw a lot of people tonight and they are not even Venezuelan yet they are supporting us. Colombians, Argentineans, even Americans were here to support us,” she said.

Other Venezuelans in Florida made a call for the end to the violence back home. A group of students at the University of Central Florida protested against the government's crackdown on protestors.

They blamed President Nicolás Maduro for a lagging economy and a outbreak of crime and fighting, his biggest challenges since taking office after the death last year of his predecessor Hugo Chávez.

"If students in Venezuela exercised their freedom of speech like UCF students, they would go to jail. That's why these Knights are giving them a voice with a stroke of a marker, a piece of tape, and a hashtag 'SOS Venezuela,'" said student Ana Roosen.

The UCF Student Government Association hosted an event Tuesday afternoon to raise awareness of the chaos taking hold in the South American country.

"The [Venezuelan] government has taken over pretty much everything we own, our freedom of speech," said Roosen. "All my friends and family over there are fighting and going out on the streets doing peaceful protests."

WOFL FOX 35 ORLANDO contributed to this report.