Venezuelan Ex-Pats In Florida Monitor Chavez's Absence

fromWLRN

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is still in Cuba recovering from cancer surgery. Nowhere in the U.S. is the political instability in Venezuela more apparent than in South Florida, home to hundreds-of-thousands of the country's expatriates. They are concerned about the instability Chavez's absence has caused in their homeland.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has not been seen or heard from in public since he underwent cancer surgery in Cuba last month. This has raised concerns about the stability of his country, both in Venezuela and also in South Florida, which is home to tens of thousands of Venezuelan expatriates.

Here's Phil Latzman of our member station WLRN in Miami.

PHIL LATZMAN, BYLINE: Welcome to Doral, nicknamed Doralzuela. This newly-incorporated city just west of the Miami airport is home to the largest concentration of Venezuelan-Americans in the U.S. Venezuelan expatriates in South Florida number in the low six figures. Many came here to escape the Chavez regime, and El Arepazo Dos restaurant on NW 79th Avenue is their unofficial headquarters.

In the background, on big screens, is Venezuelan television beaming the latest news from Caracas.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: We have a lot of information but no good information.

LATZMAN: That's Jose Hernandez, editorial chief for El Venezolono, a Miami-based newspaper catering to the country's Diaspora. Their Web site gets two million hits per month.

HERNANDEZ: We have no notion of the reality.

LATZMAN: That's because President Hugo Chavez hasn't been able to return from Cuba, after complications from a fourth cancer surgery more than a month ago. What is known is that Chavez could not make it to his scheduled swearing-in earlier this month. But the country's Supreme Court ruled he could return to take the oath of office for another term when he is able.

Juan Carlos Suarez says that violates the Venezuelan constitution.

JUAN CARLOS SAUREZ: We have to continue, you know, with the constitutional process in Venezuela. That's the main thing. Because so far, we Venezuelans have been peaceful, we have tried to respect the constitution, even though they have changed it so many times to their own values.

LATZMAN: The fact that Chavez has been allowed to delay his inauguration has infuriated many here, and has Carma Gimenez fearing the worst

CARMA GIMENEZ: Sir, let me tell you something. I can see, easily see, a civil war coming in. I think that Venezuela, today, is lost.

LATZMAN: Meanwhile, Venezuelans throughout South Florida have been trying to function without their Miami consulate, after the Chavez government shut it down more than a year ago. Of the 20,000 or so here with dual-citizenship, more than a third traveled to the nearest consulate in New Orleans last October to vote in the country's presidential election.

Although unsuccessful in unseating him, Beatrice Olavarria says the experience brought the community together.

BEATRICE OLAVARRIA: With an effort of 8,500 people that weekend, you could see it. It's obvious that everybody that's out of their country feels great attachment to their country. It's in your heart, in your blood, it's in your veins whether you've been here for 25, two or three months.

LATZMAN: Olavarria says many here would return if Chavez and his supporters were gone. But Sam Feldman, a member of the Venezuelan-American Democratic Club, says if Chavez dies, there should be no rejoicing

SAM FELDMAN: Personally, I think it's disgusting if anybody's celebrating the death of Chavez. I don't think anybody should be happy that he's dying. We might disagree with policy, but it's not an occasion of, you know, dancing in the streets and for joy and music. You know? Venezuela has been undergoing a crisis.

LATZMAN: A crisis that many expats here think won't be solved anytime soon, even if Chavez never returns alive to Venezuela.

For NPR News, I'm Phil Latzman in Miami.

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