, who died on Tuesday, had a substantial impact on South Florida, driving thousands of his citizens here to escape his reign.
Middle-class and affluent Venezuelans, fearing they would lose their wealth and freedom, fled to such South Florida enclaves as
, which became known unofficially as Westonzuela, and Doral in
The death of Chavez after a two-year battle with cancer, announced Tuesday by his vice president, was greeted in our region by cheers, celebrations and speculation about what would come next — in the South American country and in South Florida.
At the El Arepazo 2 restaurant in Weston, where dozens gathered to mark the occasion Tuesday evening, Carlos Marino called his wife to tell her the news. Her response: “I got the luggage ready.”
Immediate and emotional reactions aside, experts say it’s unlikely that the death of Chavez will trigger the sudden return of the Venezuelans who have settled in
-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“I don’t think anyone is going to go back to Venezuela, because they have recognized that Chavismo will be there for a lot longer than Chavez,” said Francisco Gonzalez, former president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce in South Florida. “Uncertainty drives people away, and the underlying economic and safety issues continue to be there, whether Chavez is there or not.”
Jerry Haar, Latin American specialist and associate dean of the College of Business at
“For South Florida, this means absolutely nothing,” he said. “To exchange one socialist and authoritarian clown for a socialist, authoritarian former bus driver is not going to make a difference. You can have Chavismo without Chavez. Much of what Chavez wanted to see has been institutionalized.”
The population of Venezuelans in Broward and Palm Beach counties doubled during Chavez’s reign, from about 12,000 in 1999 to more than 24,000 in 2011, according to census figures. In that same period, the number jumped from 25,000 to nearly 40,000 in Miami-Dade County. Experts say those numbers underestimate the true Venezuelan population in South Florida, which includes an unknown number of nationals who remained in South Florida illegally after overstaying their visas.
Eduardo Gamarra, professor of politics and international relations at FIU, feared the images of Venezuelan nationals celebrating in South Florida would backfire on those who left their country and longed to see Chavez’s reign come to an end.
“The worst thing they can do right now is go out and celebrate the death of the president,” Gamarra said. “It only confirms what Chavez’s supporters believe — that these are the people who wanted Chavez dead and conspired with the Americans to kill him.”
At El Arepazo 2, Raul Toro, 53, and his wife, Betsy, almost seemed to anticipate that concern. They walked in plucking a Venezuelan cuatro, similar to a guitar, and jubilantly shaking maracas, insisting they were not celebrating the death of a man but the possibility of a new, “free” Venezuela.
Chavez had undergone four operations in
for a cancer that was first detected in his pelvic region in mid-2011. His last surgery was on Dec. 11, and he had not been seen in public since.
“It's a moment of deep pain,” said Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his voice choking.
In Venezuela, citizens gathered around their television sets and radios Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of the announcement. Among them was Lesly Simon, immediate past president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce in South Florida.
“We are very sad for his family, for all the Venezuelan citizens,” she said.
Chavez’s reign was buoyed by oil profits and marked by the nationalizing of key businesses and an intense brand of anti-U.S. rhetoric. The 58-year-old leader cultivated friendships with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, North Korea and others hostile to the United States.
His popularity with the poor helped propel him to victory in October balloting, gaining 55 percent of the vote despite rising crime, persistent scarcities of basic food items, double-digit inflation and unpopular foreign aid programs. His reelection was a testament to the near-religious devotion of Venezuela's impoverished to their
Chavez won the lower classes' support by redistributing the nation's vast oil wealth through
programs called missions, which set up medical clinics and schools, operated a chain of cut-rate grocery stores, and divvied up nationalized farms and ranches among cooperatives of the impoverished.
Daniel Hellinger, a political science professor at Webster University in St. Louis, said the welfare programs reduced Venezuela's poverty rate from close to 80 percent in the 1990s to about 20 percent, and wiped out illiteracy.
Compared with Chavez’s political base, South Florida’s Venezuelan population is affluent, consisting of those who have an incentive to leave their homeland and have the financial means to do so, according to Susan Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the
“He’s a man who had a certain level of charisma, combining an anti-U.S. message with a populist style of governing,” she said. “He attracted the underclass and the poor, but he also attracted ‘crony capitalists,’ those who could benefit from his policies. Those who left were immune to his appeal and felt that their economic and security interests were being threatened.”
Chavez took control of oil projects worth $30 billion, the country’s cement sector, telecommunications, a rice mill operated by a unit of the U.S. food giant Cargill, and other businesses. He seized land and property, including private homes on the Los Roques archipelago, which he then used to promote tourism.
“He nationalized companies on a whim,” said Purcell. “Whatever he decided to take, he took, for the benefit of the government and his policies.”
The Venezuelan presence in South Florida predated the Chavez regime, but until he came to power, it was largely transient, said Angel Gomez, a Weston City Commissioner who grew up in Venezuela.
“Canadians have snowbirds who come to South Florida in the winter,” he said. “For South Americans, it’s reversed. They came in the summer. They had beautiful homes in what later became Weston. They spent a good portion of their summers here.”
But that changed with Chavez’s rise.
“Now, they live here year-round,” said Gomez. “They don’t feel secure enough back home. They’re afraid for their investments and for their families. They came here to stay.”