Miami in the Meantime

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

Not the case for Jesus Soto, leader of the U.S. arm of the president's political party, the Fifth Republic. Soto proudly says he's never wavered in his support for Chavez. He has a column in Venezuela al Día called "Por Ahora" (For Now), reportedly the words of Chavez as he surrendered after his failed coup. Soto works in a reform school in Miami, but his real passion is clearly the president. He calls Chavez "Hugo." The message on his answering machine includes the exhortation: "Forward! Forward Venezuela under Chavez! Unity. Unity. Civic and Military."

The 32-year-old Soto came to Miami in 1993 because of the political situation at home, he claims. He says he was arrested five times in Venezuela for political activism against the two-party system. "There was persecution of those who had different ideas," he asserts.

All the news that President Hugo Chavez wants printed will be found in El Correo del Presidente
photo courtesy Jesus Soto
All the news that President Hugo Chavez wants printed will be found in El Correo del Presidente

Intense and opinionated, he supported Chavez in Venezuela and continues to do so here in Miami. Sporting a Chavez-style military haircut, Soto says he is in constant communication with the president's inner circle. He sees part of his job here in Miami as monitoring attacks against the president from self-exiled compatriots. Approximately 95 percent of the Venezuelans in South Florida are here because they were displaced by Chavez's reforms against corruption, he believes. "The strings of corruption were cut and now they are working to reconnect them," he contends. "They are going to continue throwing away their money, but they don't care because it's money they stole."

He is particularly critical of Lange's foundation. "[It] was trying to create a cushion for all the people who would flee the dictatorship, but [they never fled]," he says with a smile.

In fact Soto may be a little too enthusiastic; Fifth Republic leadership in Caracas seems to be distancing itself from him. "They say that I am not official, that I am not the representative of the president, and clearly now that is the job of the consul and the ambassador," agrees Soto. "But what nobody can take away from me is that I was representing him during the presidential campaign when no one else was for him in this city."

According to Lange, Soto isn't the only vociferous Chavista around. She wonders why Chavez would want to distribute his newspaper in Miami: "He already has El Venezolano," Lange says caustically. An odd comment, considering the editor of the paper, Oswaldo Muñoz, is president of the Venezuelan-American Foundation.

The editorial offices of El Venezolano are located in an industrial park in west Miami-Dade. Muñoz apologetically warns a prospective visitor that the offices are not very fancy. Attached to a warehouse, up a long flight of stairs, the suite of three rooms is full of desks, shelves, and file cabinets. Awards and autographed pictures of media stars line the walls.

Muñoz is a stocky man with short hair who came to Miami in 1990. Two years later he founded the paper, the first of its kind, with several business partners. After eight years the weekly has a national circulation of about 20,000, according to Muñoz.

He doesn't believe Chavez's ascent to power has resulted in more immigration than usual to South Florida, though there has been an increase in the purchase of property and opening of new bank accounts by Venezuelans, he believes.

The newspaperman must be doing something right because he has managed to anger both sides of Miami's Venezuelan community. He has incurred the wrath of people like Lange because of his assessment that Chavez is doing some good. "After seven months we have to recognize Chavez has made some important changes for the country," he says. "It hasn't turned out that he has established a communist country like Fidel Castro."

And he dismisses Salas Römer as a has-been. "He comes to Miami because he doesn't have a forum in Venezuela," he says. "If [Salas Römer] was honest, he would be fighting his battles [there]."

Muñoz also sees opposition to Chavez in Miami but he believes its origins come not from Venezuelans, but from Miami's major Spanish-language daily. "There is a systematic campaign by El Nuevo Herald to present Venezuela as a country in chaos," he asserts. "They only see one side." Muñoz believes Cuban paranoia that Chavez will become another Castro or support the island has colored the newspaper's coverage.

As proof of his contention, he points to two articles from this past August that essentially consisted of interviews with Salas Römer, in which he attacks Chavez and condemns conditions in Venezuela. The week before, Muñoz says, he had taken the Venezuelan ambassador, visiting from Washington D.C., for a lunch with El Nuevo editors and writers. The meeting failed to produce any stories.

"I ask you who has more authority to talk about the changes in Venezuela: the ambassador or Salas Römer?" Muñoz asks. "Anything that is positive for Chavez they are not interested in."

Reporter Gerardo Reyes, who has covered Venezuela for El Nuevo, dismisses claims of bias. He says the ambassador's meeting was off-the-record at the request of the diplomat. A survey of recent stories about Venezuela by El Nuevo, including an interview with the president by opinion editor Ramon Mestre, demonstrates the paper has reported both the good and the bad about the country, Reyes insists.

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