Rise Of Chavez Sends Venezualans To Florida

Rise of Chvez Sends Venezuelans to Florida

The New York Times
Published: January 23, 2008

WESTON, Fla. In December 2002, Ariel Dunaevschi, then the owner of a furniture business in Caracas, Venezuela, was on vacation in New York with his family when opponents of President Hugo Chvez called a crippling labor strike hoping to bring the government to its knees.

(MAP: Weston, Fla., has been dubbed Westonzuela. )

As the protest wore on, paralyzing the countrys oil industry and devastating the economy, the Dunaevschis saw a very uncertain future for Venezuela and arrived at a painful decision: they would be better off staying in the United States.

They flew to Florida and rented a house here in Weston, a suburb west of Fort Lauderdale that has become so popular with Venezuelan immigrants, it is known as Westonzuela.

I had a business in Venezuela, I had shops in Caracas, everything was working perfectly, Mr. Dunaevschi, 39, said. I left everything. He added, I began here from zero.

The Dunaevschis are part of a wave of Venezuelans, mostly from the middle and upper classes, who have fled to the United States as Mr. Chvez has tightened his grip on the countrys political institutions, imposing his socialist vision and threatening to assert greater state control over many parts of the economy.

While many have been able to establish legal residency and obtain a green card, either through business or marriage, others have remained here illegally.

The surge is an example of how the political and social realities of Latin America are immediately reflected on the streets of South Florida, a dynamic that has come to define this region in the past half century.

Many Venezuelans have been able to transfer some of their wealth as they have settled in America. For two years, Mr. Dunaevschi flew to Caracas every few months carrying empty suitcases, which he filled with the familys essential belongings and carted back to Miami.

In Caracas, he laid off the familys employees, sold his cars, furniture and properties and eventually closed his business. Meanwhile, in Miami, he opened a new furniture company and settled into his new American life.

According to census data, the Venezuelan community in the United States has grown more than 94 percent this decade, from 91,507 in 2000, the year after Mr. Chvez took office, to 177,866 in 2006. Much of that rise has occurred in South Florida, making the Venezuelan community one of the fastest growing Latino subpopulations in the region this decade. In many ways, the Venezuelan influx is reminiscent of the Cuban migration spurred by Fidel Castros overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and his imposition of a socialist state.

Manuel Corao, director of one of several Venezuelan newspapers published in South Florida, said the main reason for the migration was a fear that Mr. Chvez would significantly alter the quality of life for the middle and upper classes.

The principle reason is fear of change of daily life, the loss of private property, loss of independence from the government, fear of the loss of constitutional rights and individual liberties, said Mr. Corao, who relocated permanently from Venezuela in 1996 and runs Venezuela al Dia, a thrice-monthly tabloid with offices in Doral, a Miami suburb where Venezuelans have settled.

Like many of the Cubans who came to South Florida in the early Castro years, most Venezuelans who arrived during the first few years of the Chvez administration probably did not expect to stay long.

They didnt think Chvez would last long, so a lot of Venezuelans are moving their families nearby, and the nearest place in the states is Miami, said Thomas D. Boswell, professor of geography at the University of Miami.

Sinking their roots into the South Florida soil, Venezuelans have shifted their money into American banks, married and divorced, opened businesses, become active in local politics, and seen their children graduate from American schools.

Mr. Dunaevschis decision to keep his family in the United States was made easier because his wife, from whom he is getting divorced, was an American citizen. I could work, he said. But for a lot of people without papers, its more complicated.

Like many Venezuelans who have recently come to South Florida, Mr. Dunaevschi underwent a significant change in his standard of living. Faced with a much higher cost of living, he abandoned some of the luxuries he enjoyed in Venezuela, like a domestic staff and chauffeur.

Life was very good there, he said. But like many Venezuelans here, he cannot imagine returning as long as Mr. Chvez is in power, a sentiment that echoes the resolve of many Cuban exiles not to return to Cuba until Mr. Castro dies.

I wont consider it, as long as theres that guy there, Mr. Dunaevschi said.

Even the defeat of Mr. Chvezs constitutional overhaul in December, which would have allowed him to remain in office indefinitely, did not seem to offer the deeply cynical exile community much new hope. In the meantime, Venezuelan exiles go on with their new lives here.