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Interstate 95 is at a standstill. Venezuelan businessman José Campos Cerrados stares angrily at the rain splattering on his windshield. After dropping his wife, Lourdes, at the hotel, he had taken to the highway like a fool. This traffic is one of the reasons they shouldn't move to Broward, he broods.
The couple had spent the morning looking at houses. On Thursday they had seen homes in Key Biscayne and Coral Gables. Today during the entire ride back to the hotel she would not shut up about the wonders of Weston. No, he resolves, they will move to the Gables or the Key like others before them. Those houses will be closer to work.
There is so much to do. Now that they will be living in South Florida he can finally concentrate on the U.S. end of his import/export company. Yesterday a friend in the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce advised him where to find a warehouse near the airport. It's just like it used to be in Venezuela. If you knew the right people and made the appropriate contributions, everything turned out fine. The real estate agent had dated a cousin of his in Caracas. He told them exactly where to locate a house. Many Venezuelans are moving to Doral, the agent said, but you can do better.
José's pager rings: e-mail from his immigration lawyer. José had sent him a faxful of questions the day before. He is fed up with visas, asset declarations, tax shelters, mortgages, schools for the kids. The list seems without end.
This past year has been a nightmare. Who would have imagined in 1992, when Hugo Chavez Frias ended his bloody coup attempt, that a scant seven years later the madman would be running the nation? Sure Venezuela needed shaking up, but there has to be a limit. Chavez can't be trusted. One day he writes a friendly letter to an international terrorist; he declares land use a public right. Then he turns around and pledges to safeguard private property and pay back the country's debt. Nothing is stable. The rules have changed. Before, José's friends at the airport in Caracas made sure he was treated well. Now suddenly it's all taxes and fees.
The move to Miami is the safest course of action, for the moment. The city has always been like a second home anyway. As his business grew, it became necessary to open bank accounts on Brickell. He still must return to Caracas to get that L-1 visa, though. The lawyer says with extensions it may entitle him to stay here up to seven years. That should be enough time. It'll be good to escape from the crime in Caracas, the barbed wire, and security guards. But what to do with the old house? To sell it in the current market will be fatal.
José's car crawls down the highway. Perhaps he should give some money to that woman who keeps pestering him to join her anti-Chavez group, he thinks. Maybe they could have influence like the Cubans. It's true, one has to be careful. Still there must be some check to Chavez's power, for who knows what he might do.
Businessman José Campos Cerrados is a composite character. He represents a number of Venezuelans in the past and an unknown number in the future. South Florida has the largest Venezuelan population outside that nation, many of whom are from the wealthier and educated classes. The community is conservatively estimated to be about 140,000. There could be many more. "[The estimates] vary from 150,000 to 180,000 [including Orlando]," says José Jesus Hernandez Contreras, an officer with the Venezuelan consulate in Miami. "No one keeps exact statistics, and it is very difficult to tell." Venezuelans regularly come to Miami for work, school, pleasure, or to visit relatives. If Venezuela falls into chaos, this region could fill with Josés locked in bitter self-exile. It has happened before.
If the disaffected and the displaced do come, there are already people waiting to enlist them in anti-Chavez groups. Some of the president's supporters have cropped up as well, eager to defend their leader. Regardless of whether conditions in Venezuela worsen, elections for a new congress and president slated for 2000 guarantee these political tensions will be played out among a population that, although living outside of their native land, still have the right to vote.
An exodus of educated Venezuelans moving to South Florida began in the late Eighties as the price of oil dropped and decades of corruption and mismanagement caught up with the country. Venezuela's two political parties had built a system of patronage that condemned a land with abundant natural riches to 80 percent poverty. What started as a trickle turned into a flow throughout the Nineties.
Today, as Chavez plots a new course for Venezuela, it is unclear how many of his countrymen are abandoning ship for political and economic reasons, even if temporarily. The number of newly self-exiled Venezuelans can best be charted in calls to immigration lawyers, real estate agents, and in the statistics of the U.S. Department of State. Much of the information is anecdotal and colored by prejudice, but it points to a general increase in wealthy Venezuelans debarking in South Florida. According to the State Department, Venezuelans requesting L visas, which are generally granted for business purposes, leapt from 1044 during fiscal year 1997 to 1885 the following year. From the period of October 1, 1998, to March of this year, 1222 L visas have been issued. (The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not keep statistics of visitors by nation.)