DORAL, Fla. (AP) -- Vice President Mike Pence addressed a sympathetic crowd of Venezuelans in South Florida and pledged the U.S. will use its economic and diplomatic power to push for free elections.
Pence spoke at a church in the city of Doral, the exile enclave, to a crowd of about 300. They occasionally shouted "freedom, freedom" and cheered every time the vice president spoke of President Donald Trump's interest in Venezuela, a socialist nation that has been undergoing an economic crisis.
"Under the leadership of President Donald Trump, the United States of America will continue to bring the full measure of American economic and diplomatic power to bare until democracy is restored in Venezuela," Pence said, threatening there were more sanctions to come against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
As other countries in Latin America have improved their economies, Venezuela has gone downhill, Pence said, calling Maduro's presidency, a "dictatorship."
"We hear you, we stand with you. We will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles," Pence said.
A woman held a sign at the event that read, "Venezuelan resistance asks for military resistance. We can't do it alone," an apparent reference to Trump's remarks earlier this month that there was a possibility for the U.S. to invade Venezuela.
Last week, Pence visited Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Panama in an attempt to rally the region against Venezuela, but because of Trump's comments, the vice president switched to damage control to soothe fears in a region scarred by past U.S. invasions.
In South Florida, Pence found a supportive and grateful crowd.
Earlier on Wednesday, Pence met with 15 Venezuelan exiles in South Florida who said more help is needed to restore democracy in the socialist regime.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart joined Pence in listening to testimonies of established leaders of the Venezuelan diaspora and recently exiled politicians and judges.
Ramon Muchacho was the mayor of the municipality of Chacao since 2013 but fled in July, saying he was being persecuted by the government.
"There is no way to get (the government) out by democratic means," Muchacho said, pleading for more help from Latin America, the U.S. and Europe.
Two other mayors told Pence the U.S. government should impose more sanctions.
Carlos Vecchio, a well-known leader of an opposition party, said that Venezuela is a failed state that criminals had taken control of.
"It is a criminal state," Vecchio said. "It is led by a mafia involved in drug trafficking and close to terrorist groups."
Alejandro Jesus Rebolledo, a Venezuelan judge who fled the country recently, also accused the government of crimes such as money laundering and drug trafficking.
The country's vice president Tareck El Aissami was sanctioned by the Trump administration in February after being accused of running a drug trafficking network of corrupt officials in Venezuela. More recently, Washington slapped sanctions on Maduro and other top officials involved in the installation of a new, all-powerful constitutional assembly.
During the meeting, Ernesto Ackerman, a local leader of Venezuelan-Americans, approached Pence and gave him a black hat with the colors of the Venezuelan flag. It read, "Make Venezuela Great Again."