Miami in the Meantime

With the future of their country in flux, Venezuelans are setting up shop, and opposing camps, in Florida

Some sources date the upswing to the tumultuous Chavez electoral campaign of 1998. They say it slowed in mid-September, when the Catholic Church mediated a compromise between the congress (representing the old political order) and the constitutional assembly charged with executing many of Chavez's reforms. (The deal: The congress still gets paid while the constitutional assembly finishes the new magna carta. Once ratified by popular vote, new legislative and presidential elections are to be held.) Chavez's popularity at home is between 70 and 90 percent, depending on the source. Yet economic indicators are grim, with inflation last year at 30 percent and unemployment hovering at 20 percent. And for many, especially outside of Venezuela, the president is unknown and worrisome.

Enemies of Chavez as well as supporters understand the power Miami holds over the future of Venezuela. Because the upper classes think they stand to lose the most under the new regime, Miami is a natural base to organize against the new president. It's an old tale. In the past the area has soaked up populations from Latin countries when worry turned to fear: Cubans, Nicaraguans, and most recently Colombians, to name a few. When turmoil hits, secondary homes become primary residences. Sometimes they also become arenas for the displaced to plot a triumphant return.

But for the moment it appears unlikely Venezuela will follow that familiar story line: Chavez's overwhelming popularity at home, a working constitutional assembly, and a cautious acceptance by the United States may be a few of the reasons. Chavez and his supporters seem to understand, nonetheless, that the success of their government depends in part on selling it to the rest of the world, particularly to investors. Nowhere would this be as important as in Miami, with its large Latin-American money and banking presence. (Chavez is planning a trip here in early December.) It's also a center of anti-Chavez sentiment, likely fueled by an active Cuban political culture that sees the world through the prism of Fidel Castro and is particularly leery of the new president. When Chavez partisans mutter cryptically of a foreign-based campaign to slander their leader, usually they are talking about Miami.

Manuel Corao has opened his pages to Chavez partisans in Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Manuel Corao has opened his pages to Chavez partisans in Miami
Gladys Lange hopes to unify Miami's Venezuelan community in opposition to Chavez
Steve Satterwhite
Gladys Lange hopes to unify Miami's Venezuelan community in opposition to Chavez

On a recent Saturday afternoon, about 40 Venezuelans file into a conference room in a Brickell office tower high above Biscayne Bay. The plushly carpeted boardroom on the 41st floor in the law offices of Steel, Hector & Davis has been transformed into a dining area with eight tables clothed in white linen. A catering crew is setting up a lunch of chicken and salmon with an ample stock of white wine, while a who's who of Miami's Venezuelan community trickles into the room. They are here for a presentation by three members of the nation's constitutional assembly. The men are on a tour designed to convince a skeptical U.S. establishment it need not worry about what is happening in Venezuela. Miami is the last stop on a commission that included trips to New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

Among the first to arrive today are the directors of the largest Venezuelan newspapers in South Florida: El Venezolano and its competitor, Venezuela al Día. Oswaldo Muñoz and Manuel Corao say little to each other as they heft stacks of their papers into the room and begin handing them out. José Carrillo, a local banker and the president of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, also strides in. When two executives from Chavez's official newspaper, El Correo del Presidente, show up, it sparks some interest. News has circulated in the community that Chavez plans to distribute his paper in the United States. It is further evidence of a public relations campaign by Chavez supporters to promote a positive picture of Venezuela's changes. Absent from the crowd are the representatives of Chavez's political party here in Miami and its chief opponent.

The consul general, Antonio José Hernandez Borge, sporting a handlebar mustache, gives a short introduction. Then Isaias Rodriguez, a university professor and first vice president of the constitutional assembly, begins to speak. Although Rodriguez is a Chavez supporter (called Chavistas), he's been credited with being a moderating force in the assembly. With a full beard, glasses, and lecturelike delivery, he lays out the group's message.

"Everyone is afraid of change," he reassures the crowd, but "the process in Venezuela is peaceful and democratic."

Rodriguez contends the news media has distorted the Venezuelan reality and that the community in Miami lacks an understanding of events there. But the group here seems suspicious of his optimistic appraisal. Skepticism of all things Chavez runs high. Last year's presidential election was the first time Miami's Venezuelans could vote outside their country. Only 2500 voters did so, but Chavez lost 3-1. (In Venezuela Chavez took 56 percent of the vote.)

The crowd is more interested in another member of the delegation, Claudio Fermin. He is one of only six Chavez opponents elected to the 131-person assembly. The former presidential candidate is an independent and a frequent visitor to Miami. It is clear his words carry more weight here.

Fermin starts by taking questions. He sketches the timetable for a vote on the constitution and new elections for national offices. He casts the moment as an opportunity to re-create Venezuela. Elegantly dressed and eloquently spoken, Fermin makes the case that the political establishment has thoroughly discredited itself in Venezuela, and a change is both necessary and unavoidable. He exhorts Venezuelans outside the country to take part in the process and tries to convey a sense of hope for the future.

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