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Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 11:10 GMT
Party turns sour for Venezuelan expats
By Emilio San Pedro
BBC News, Miami

Venezuelan expats in Miami
The celebrations turned out to have been premature
Hours before Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez emerged triumphantly in Caracas to declare himself winner in the presidential election, Venezuelan expats living in Miami were celebrating what they perceived to be the end of his rule.

For them, Sunday was a day for celebrating their national identity, their democracy and what most of them hoped would be the resounding victory at the polls of the opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales.

Thousands went out to vote - many of them donning the national colours or waving Venezuelan flags - to the largest Venezuelan voting centre outside of the country.

It was difficult, if not impossible, to find a voter at the Orange Bowl football stadium - used to accommodate the more than 25,000 people registered to vote in Miami - who would even discuss the possibility that Mr Chavez would remain in office.

Joel Valencia
Joel Valencia says things are "out of hand" in Venezuela

Joel Valencia, who said he had moved to Miami five years ago when it became impossible to continue running his textile business in Venezuela, was adamant: "The only way Mr Rosales won't win is if the vote is rigged."

Mr Valencia, like most of the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have moved to Miami in recent years, said he had decided to move to the US because life in Venezuela had simply become untenable under Mr Chavez.

"I travel back and forth to Venezuela from here all the time," said Mr Valencia.

"However, I can't imagine being able to move back to Caracas in the short term even if Mr Rosales wins because things have got completely out of hand back home," he added.

'Victims'

Some blocks away, at the emblematic Cuban Cafe Versailles, a large Venezuelan family was enjoying a meal and a premature celebration of the departure of Mr Chavez from the Miraflores Palace.

Venezuelan voters in Miami
More than 25,000 people registered to vote in Miami

Leila, who has lived in Miami for nearly 10 years, said that President Chavez was using populism to win votes from the poor but that he wasn't fooling anyone.

"The fact is that he says he's improving things, but conditions in Venezuela are more deplorable than they've ever been and people live in constant fear of being attacked or robbed."

Her words were echoed by Americo, who has lived in Miami for eight years.

"Mr Rosales represents everything that is positive about Venezuela. He's a democratic man who truly loves his country and won't give away our natural resources like Mr Chavez has done to gain influence overseas."

Many of the Venezuelans who live in Miami, like their Cuban counterparts, see themselves as the victims of an autocratic leader who they say has run roughshod over everything they worked hard to build.

'Walking WMD'

But unlike the Cuban exiles who for the most part broke ties with Cuba, the majority of Venezuelans who live here travel back and forth to their homeland on a fairly regular basis.

Ana
Ana says that Miami "offers the best of all worlds"

However, some, like Ana - a businesswoman and mother of two - say they see no reason to return to Venezuela to live with or without President Chavez.

"I thought long and hard about coming to live here. It was a life-changing decision but I decided that when I moved here it would be for good," says Ana, who was an accountant in Venezuela and now runs a successful waxing salon in Miami.

"I will never stop being a Venezuelan. No-one can take that away from you but I have to think of my daughters and giving them the opportunity to make a real life for themselves in the United States.

"You have to understand that Hugo Chavez is a walking weapon of mass destruction for our country. He has caused a great deal of destruction which will take years to overturn when he's gone.

"I always say that Miami offers the best of all worlds. It's a 30-minute drive from the real United States [in a clear allusion to the city's predominant Latin identity] and a three-hour flight away from Venezuela."

'Staying for good'

But, not all Venezuelans who live here have come to Miami for the same reasons.

I could never go back to that reality of persecution
Vilma Petrash
For Vilma Petrash, a Venezuelan academic who became a vocal critic of President Chavez, there was no other option as far as she could see it.

"I became a victim of political persecution in Venezuela and was finally convinced to leave by my husband for the sake of shielding ourselves and our two young children from the possibility of suffering serious repercussions for the political stances I took," she says.

"The truth is that I could never go back to that reality of persecution. At least now I can leave my home in Miami and know that when I return my children will be safe and sound."

The Venezuelans living here find comfort in their opposition to President Chavez.

For many of them - unlike the way he is perceived by large swathes of the poor in Venezuela - there is not much that Mr Chavez has done that merits celebrating or even mentioning.

Perhaps, that helps to explain the jubilant scenes that were played out in Miami before the news emerged that he had been re-elected.

And, with Mr Chavez now set for another six years in power, it also appears clearer that thousands of Venezuelans who came to Miami in search of a temporary haven may find their stay here taking on a greater sense of permanence.



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