Two women hold up a Venezuelan flag near the end of Vice President Mike Pence's speech at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Doral. Vice President Mike Pence visited Our Lady of Guadalupe Church Aug. 23 to hear first-hand the stories of Venezuelan exiles and reassure the community that the Trump Administration "will continue to bring the full measure of economic and diplomatic power to bear until democracy is restored" in that nation.

Pence to Venezuelans: ‘We are with you’

DORAL | They called Nicolas Maduro a dictator and a gangster. They recounted personal experiences of torture, beatings and intimidation at the hands of government thugs and jailors. They told of blatant disregard for the rule of law and the will of the people. A mother held up photos of her 22-year-old daughter, killed by a bullet to the head after a protest march.

About a dozen exiles of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” sat around a table in the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church Aug. 23 telling Vice President Mike Pence sad tales of their country’s 18-year tailspin, from democracy to dictatorship, from oil riches to widespread misery.

“I ask for all those who have fallen,” said an emotional Maria Eugenia Tovar, mother of Génesis Carmona, a university student and beauty queen killed during protests in 2014 in Valencia, in the state of Carabobo. Tovar and other witnesses say the bullet came from government-sanctioned mobs — colectivos — who appeared after the military corralled the protesters and left. Feeling persecuted since then, Tovar and her family sought refuge in Miami.

So did Francisco Marquez, 30, an activist with Voluntad Popular (the will of the people) who became a political prisoner for four months in 2016. He recalled how his jailors forced him to march naked and “run under gunfire in handcuffs just to mess with my head.”

“I don’t think governments realize how much torture is done in Venezuela,” said Marquez, whose dual U.S.-Venezuela citizenship probably expedited his release. He noted that “to stay on the front page means a lot, more than you could possibly know, to people who are still in jail.”

Several of the exiles compared Venezuela’s situation to Cuba’s, but not because of ideology — although Venezuela has copied Cuba’s model for repression since the days of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez. A number of top officials in the regime, including Maduro’s vice president, have been accused of narco-trafficking.

“We are fighting against gangsters,” said Warner Jimenez, a businessman and mayor of Maturín in the state of Monagas. His businesses confiscated, his family persecuted, he hid from the authorities for three weeks before making his way to South Florida earlier this year. “Please don’t allow Venezuela to become another Cuba.”

Carlos Vecchio, another activist with Voluntad Popular who spent three months in hiding before leaving his homeland, thanked the Cuban community already here for making exile “easier, because your family, without knowing, set the flag of freedom in South Florida.”

He was specifically addressing U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who sat in on the meeting along with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the vice president of the United States, fresh from a tour of Latin America.

Pence had asked specifically to come to Doral and listen to them in person, and his arrival was not without skepticism. The news Our Lady of Guadalupe, a church populated by immigrants and exiles, would be hosting the vice president of an administration that has embarked on an anti-immigrant campaign of deportations, refugee bans and wall-building made members cringe.

The optics were horrid too. Before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe would stand the representative of a U.S. president who had begun his electoral campaign by calling all — save “some” — undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals.” But longtime parishioner Antonio Fernandez posted on Facebook how the Doral parish has no construction debt, “all thanks to Mexicans that proudly supported the building (of) a temple in Doral to honor their mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

The parishioner also feared the church was being used for “political propaganda … like so many others (politicians) used la Esquina de Tejas or Versailles for their rants with the Cubans in the past.”

In interviews with the Florida Catholic, Fernandez’s objections were noted by Our Lady of Guadalupe’s pastor, Father Israel Mago, and another longtime parishioner, Dina Mitjans. But they, along with Archbishop Wenski, chose to look at the Aug. 23 listening session with Venezuelan exiles, and subsequent vice presidential speech in the church, through a different lens.

“Just the fact that he’s standing with her, with the cross in back of him, is already a sign that she is in control,” said Mitjans, referring to the larger than life crucifix and image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that anchor the church’s sanctuary.

“I’m hoping — praying — that this will not divide our parishioners,” she said, calling the event “an act of mercy, because the Venezuelan people need to be heard. The ones here live in fear of what is happening with their families in Venezuela. The fact that the vice president is coming here means he wants to hear firsthand what is happening there.”

Although it is named for Mexicans’ beloved patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe embodies her other title — patroness of the Americas. About 60 percent of the parishioners are Venezuelans, reflecting the makeup of the city of Doral, and they consider the parish their “spiritual home.”

Father Mago’s response to the critics — who he says are not in the majority — is to urge them to look at the visit through the eyes of faith, not politics.

“For me, it gives me hope,” he said. “It’s a symbol of unity and I think it’s a blessing to be able to be a bridge between the government of the U.S. and the Venezuelan community.”

As he prayed at the start of the vice president’s meeting with representatives of the Venezuelan diaspora: “Tell us what to say and how to say it for the greater glory of God. Help us see the fruits of this encounter for the sake of Venezuela.”

After listening to Venezuelan natives speak about the sufferings and struggles of the South American nation, Pence said he would convey their stories to President Trump and was both “deeply” moved and humbled by the “courage” of the members who spoke.

“This room is a testament to the brutality of the Maduro regime,” Pence said. “President Trump has made it clear that the United States of America will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles.”

The Trump administration, he assured them, will work with other nations in this hemisphere to continue slapping meaningful sanctions against individuals in the Maduro regime — including Maduro himself, who is already one of only four heads of state directly sanctioned by the U.S. government.

The Trump administration “will continue to bring the full measure of American economic and diplomatic power to bear until democracy is restored in Venezuela,” promised Pence, who also promised the Venezuelan community: “We are with you and we will stand with you. … America first does not mean America alone. … The birthright of freedom belongs to all of our people in this New World.”