Venezuelan Expatriates See a Reason to Celebrate

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ Published: March 5, 2013

First the car horns blasted the news on street corners here, a town so packed with Venezuelans that it is nicknamed “Doralzuela.” Then came dozens of yellow, blue and red flags, floating in celebration, followed by bursts of singing.

“It’s the Venezuelan national anthem,” Carolina Gamboa, 36, shouted over the ruckus. “This is a triumph for Venezuela. Justice has finally arrived.” In this slice of Miami-Dade County, where more Venezuelan expatriates live than anywhere else in the country and where Hugo Chávez is particularly reviled, news of his death elicited outpourings of raucous celebration and, to many, cautious optimism for the future. At Arepa 2, a popular restaurant where Venezuelans typically gather to share news from home, crowds streamed in shortly after work to trade words about what could be, in time, a different Venezuela. Many came here to Miami to escape Mr. Chávez’s socialist vision, his iron grip on the nation or the explosion in crime that has consumed oil-rich Venezuela in recent years.

Eleimar Lemus, 27, heard the official declaration of Mr. Chávez’s death and did not wait long to hop into her car with friends and drive from Broward County to Doral. “I knew I had to be here,” she said, as she raced toward the restaurant. Ms. Lemus said she moved to Florida three years ago, after nearly being kidnapped at gunpoint from her car in Caracas. She got away with a broken nose. The mugging was just one in a string of crimes she faced, including robberies, burglaries and an attempted carjacking. “They were after my Toyota,” she said. “Having a Toyota is saying, ‘Rob me, kill me.’ And an iPhone. They will really kill you for that.” Ms. Lemus said she knew that change would not come quickly to Venezuela. But she is hopeful that with Mr. Chávez’s death, it is now inevitable.

Inside, Luigi Boria, the Venezuelan mayor of Doral, called it “a historic moment for Venezuela.” “I know big changes will come to Venezuela,” he said as a throng crowded into Arepa 2. “Now we need to have a peaceful transition.” Outside, Venezuelans arrived in yellow, blue and red hats, scarves and T-shirts, celebrating a moment they said might deliver them home at some point or at least make their relatives there safer. A few miles away at Arepa 1, a similar group gathered outside and inside, cheering the news on television while chomping on arepas, Venezuela’s staple corn meal patties, and sipped Frescolita. They spoke of rebuilding Venezuela, maybe not now but soon.

“Death is always lamentable,” said Angel Monterusco, 51, a computer software consultant, as he sat at a table with his family, “but it’s a new era. We had a dictator. There were no laws, no justice.” His new wife, Maria Eugenia Prince, 43, arrived just six months ago from Venezuela. She was a manager at a pharmaceutical company and said, like many others here, that fear of crime forced her to leave. Sending her children to school was nerve-racking. Visiting a bank, driving a car — routine acts in most countries — were cause for panic. “Venezuela has suffered so much in recent years,” she said. “So many people who moved, died and lost jobs in a country that is so oil rich.” “I want to go back home,” she said. “It’s my country.”