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Clashes in Venezuela draw concern, hope for Jacksonville refugees

'We are with you!' US says of Venezuela opposition uprising

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As violent protests and riots break out in Venezuela, thousands of Venezuelan Americans in the Jacksonville area are watching closely.

With more than 3,000 Venezuelans in North Florida, the leader of an area group said they are monitoring the clashes closely, hoping they will bring change and peace to the embattled South American country.

Clashes erupt

Crowds of people in Venezuela were involved in violent clashes as an attempt to overthrow the government was underway. Protesters took to the streets of Caracas as heavily armed troops and demonstrators clashed in an attempt to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

The opposition leader, Juan Guaidó ​​​​​​, called for the military to oust Maduro from office.

Maduro is adamant the military stands behind him and has ordered troops to suppress demonstrators and defectors.

Crowds of anti-Maduro demonstrators appeared to be plowed through by tactical vehicles Tuesday. Videos circulating show tear gas being used and gunshots could be heard.

The White House and the Trump administration back the overthrow. Vice President Mike Pence said, "We are with you!" to Venezuelans taking to the streets. He went on to say, "America will stand with you until freedom and democracy are restored."

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Local reaction 

There's a significant population of Venezuelans in the Jacksonville area. The clashes in Venezuela have drawn both concern and hope for them. 

"There’s a humanitarian crisis right now," said Maria Kellerman, a Venezuelan American and activist living in Jacksonville.

News4Jax met with Kellerman and two other women now living in Jacksonville. With their friends and family in the embattled country, they’re watching the revolution closely and nervously.

"It is going to take a long fight to get out of this," Kellerman said. "It is not right. The humans and the regular Venezuelans have human rights. And they are being violated on a constant basis."

All three of the women hope Maduro is ousted, saying he’s caused pain, suffering and death to the Venezuelan people.

"The situation right now is really difficult,” said Gaby Perez-Pirela, the president of the Association of Venezuelans Jacksonville. "And we know that everybody is struggling through these times."

Her organization is offering help for those whose loved ones are affected.

"We are looking forward to make sure that we address everybody’s needs and help them out and guide them through the problems," Perez-Pirela said.

The women told News4Jax Venezuelans need support and supplies such as toiletries, food and water.

Freedom

A crowd in Caracas chanted, "Si se puede," which means, "Yes we can."

Guaidó has significant support from the people of Venezuela. But Maduro has been in place more than 20 years, taking over for President Hugo Chavez.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a vocal critic of Maduro, urged Venezuela's military to support Guaidó on Twitter.

"This is the moment for those military officers in #Venezuela to fulfill their constitutional oath & defend the legitimate interim President @jguaido in this effort to restore democracy," he tweeted. 

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., also wants Maduro out of power. 

"The United States and the world cannot sit idly by while innocent people are murdered!" he tweeted.

Support 

A large group of Venezuelan Americans, potentially thousands, will be meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Hemming Park in downtown Jacksonville to stand in solidarity for peace and change. Everyone is welcome.

They will be collecting supplies, specifically toiletries, to send to their home country.  

Click here more information.


About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.