April 5, 2019 / 12:09 PM / 17 days ago

Houston's Venezuelan expats eager for more action against Maduro

HOUSTON, April 5 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is set to speak in Houston on Friday carrying a tough message against Venezuela’s government to an expatriate community eager for more actions to oust the country’s president, Nicolas Maduro.

An estimated 50,000 Venezuelans live in greater Houston, the second-largest expat community outside of south Florida. Many support U.S. efforts to rid Venezuela of Maduro, having fled the socialist politics of former leader Hugo Chavez for a home in Houston’s energy industry.

Pence’s speech on Friday, to a hand-picked audience of 300 people, more than half from the area’s Venezuelan community, may put a spotlight on the administration’s next steps. He is scheduled to address the group at midday at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The Trump administration is considering new sanctions to sap the Maduro government of oil revenue, which provides 90 percent of the OPEC member nation’s export income, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said last week.

Sanctions “are making it difficult for Maduro. But those people will not get out without a big push from the international community,” said Carlos Sanchez, a former employee of Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA, who moved to Texas after Chavez fired thousands of oil workers in 2002.

Sanchez lives in Katy, a dozen miles (20 kilometers) west of Houston’s energy corridor where ConocoPhillips, BP America and Venezuela’s Citgo Petroleum Corp have local headquarters. Katy has so many expats, he said, it is sometimes called “Katy-zuela.

Francisco Monaldi, a Venezuelan native and Latin American energy expert at Rice, said many Houston expats want Pence to offer a plan to get the Venezuelan military to stop supporting Maduro.

“There’s a lot of concern about ‘what’s the plan now?’” Monaldi said in an interview. “It doesn’t seem the military is willing to remove support from Maduro” and accept Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is backed by the United States and most Western Hemisphere countries.

Some anti-Maduro residents here believe sanctions are not enough.

“We want to see more than barking. We want to see action,” said Miguel Eljuri, a Venezuelan living in Houston who also once worked for PDVSA.

He and other expats interviewed this week said they wished the United States would form a military coalition to force Maduro out. Some said they would return to the Latin American nation under a new administration.

“There’s a lot of people who would like to go there,” said Luis Savcic, a former Venezuelan oil worker who joined Marathon Petroleum Corp in Houston. “Engineers, doctors, skilled labor should go back.”

Some large oilfield service companies with operations in Venezuela have identified Venezuelan employees now outside the country who could help rebuild the nation’s energy industry once a new administration is in office, Monaldi said.

“Houston will play a tremendous role in the reconstruction of Venezuela,” Monaldi said. “The human resources of its oil industry have been devastated.” (Reporting by Collin Eaton in Houston; editing by Gary McWilliams and Steve Orlofsky)

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