Miami in the Meantime

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

A man in back stands up and says when he is in the cafeterías on Calle Ocho, Cubans who note his accent frequently ask whether his country is moving to the extreme left.

"This is a question that is very particular to Miami," Fermin responds. "Everyone asks if Venezuela will become a totalitarian regime, a carbon copy of what exists in Cuba."

It is an unfair comparison, Fermin asserts. He says this idea has been propagated by members of the old political class that has lost power. "Those who have been displaced have wanted to raise the false idea they were displaced by a dictatorship, violently, unjustly," he continues. "They have been displaced, relieved, substituted by the will of the people, democratically."

"I defended Chavez in Miami before anyone else did," says Jesus Soto
photo courtesy Jesus Soto
"I defended Chavez in Miami before anyone else did," says Jesus Soto
Oswaldo Muñoz's El Venzolano is the oldest and largest of the community's newspapers
Steve Satterwhite
Oswaldo Muñoz's El Venzolano is the oldest and largest of the community's newspapers

After the meeting ends, Rodriguez stands amid a clutch of people wedged between the tables and the bar. He is less circumspect about the origin of the attacks against Chavez. "The ex-presidential candidate Henrique Salas Römer has used this city as the center of the campaign," Rodriguez explains. "He wants to launch his candidacy [for the coming elections] by using Miami as a platform to spread disinformation to weaken Chavez."

Gladys Lange Highland, dressed in white from head to toe, answers the door to her Eastern Shores home. Lange has only been in Miami-Dade for a couple of years, but she's wasted no time. Before moving here she lived in San Diego where she worked at a cultural organization called Casa de Venezuela. Today she is general director of the Venezuelan-American Foundation, a deputy in the Latin-American Parliament, and the Miami manager of presidential aspirant Salas Römer's political party, Proyecto Venezuela.

A former congressman and governor, Salas Römer ran against Chavez for the presidency. Today he bills himself as the main opposition to the president in Venezuela but seems unable to summon much support within the country. Salas Römer has made Miami a base in which to spread his message that Venezuela faces a dark future under Chavez.

Lange denies this is a disinformation campaign. She says the president is at fault. "He is responsible for this campaign with his aggressive, authoritarian discourse."

Her spacious home is filled with tasteful art that runs from primitive to modern. An orchid graces the kitchen counter. Outside, a greyhound reclines on an expansive wood deck by the water. The dog stares expectantly inside the house through sliding glass doors. Lange's large brown eyes are perpetually wide as she talks about the fear she feels for her country under Chavez. She dismisses the constitutional assembly as a tool of the strongman. The situation in Venezuela is dire, she warns. Investors are staying away because of insecurity about the future. Professionals are fleeing in greater numbers than ever. Doctors, lawyers, and architects are working in Miami restaurants just to get by. "They would rather stay here as illegals than return [to their own country]," she claims.

To prove her point, Lange gets on her portable phone and starts calling Venezuelan friends with real estate businesses. She reaches one that caters to Venezuelans in Broward. Her friend claims that in the past year the number of Venezuelans looking for new homes has increased by 50 percent. She switches off the phone, triumphant. "You see?" she says.

The plight of these Venezuelans has been the driving force behind the Venezuelan-American Foundation's main activity: immigration seminars to teach people how to stay in the United States legally. But her plans for the organization are much greater than this. "Politically we Venezuelans are not organized here," she complains. "The foundation is trying to unite [the community]."

Lange is optimistic about her work. "The situation is frozen in Venezuela but the foundation keeps on growing," she asserts.

The group, which was founded in 1998, boasts about 800 members. One of its main goals is to collect 10,000 signatures and hand Florida's congressional delegation a request to change the immigration status of Venezuelans, making it easier for them to work in the United States.

Venezuelans who have fled Chavez are in a difficult position, she says. "We can't ask for amnesty because there wasn't a coup," Lange explains. "All the people who are here don't have an excuse because the [U.S.] government will say there was a democratic election."

The foundation is developing a database, grouped by profession, of Venezuelans in South Florida. It also hopes to participate in trade fairs. She says she keeps in contact with similar organizations such as the Cuban-American National Foundation.

Lange insists the foundation is not political and won't take an official position on Chavez. The leadership in the foundation is concerned about the president, she will allow, but within the membership there is a diversity of opinion. It is her political advocacy for Salas Römer that allows her to speak out against Chavez. She is confident more people from Miami will vote for her candidate in the next election.

But it's difficult work, she admits. "There is no political culture among Venezuelans here," she complains. "In the past they only wanted to enrich themselves, so they would change to whichever party gave them the advantage."

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