Miami in the Meantime

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.)

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.

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.

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."

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."

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.

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.

But El Venezolano has also managed to raise the ire of confirmed Chavistas in Miami, because Muñoz lends his pages to Chavez opponents. "I think it is important to have opposition," he says. "It gives oxygen to the democratic system."

Manuel Corao, who runs Venezuela al Día, El Venezolano's competition, doesn't see it that way. "We can't create an opposition that doesn't exist," he declares. "What the country needs now is to support Chavez. The day he doesn't make us happy, we will substitute him."

The biweekly newspaper is also located in an industrial section of west Miami-Dade, and Corao claims the circulation is 21,000. Venezuela al Día is a family business run by Corao and his wife, Amelia. The paper has opened its pages to Chavistas in Miami such as Jesus Soto.

Corao echoes Muñoz with his dismissal of Salas Römer. "It is not that Salas Römer is discredited; it's that he has no resonance in the country," he says.

But he is more skeptical that an anti-Chavez editorial slant in El Nuevo is the work of Cubans. "The fear of leftist dictatorships is so big in the world that it's not just a problem of Miami," he says. "Chavez didn't understand the global communication system. A couple of years ago no one paid attention to what he was saying."

Of course it didn't help matters that Chavez has had two separate visits with Castro.

"Fidel Castro in South Florida is like a red flag to a bull," he says with a grin. "If you want an instant block of opposition all you need to say is 'visit' or 'dialogue' with Fidel Castro."

Still he believes the president understands the danger. "This is why Chavez is trying to change his image," he advances. "That is why he wants his own media."

On October 27 "the official organ of the historic process" will be unveiled for distribution at 55 locations in Miami (it's been published in Venezuela for three months). The editor in chief of El Correo del Presidente is Hugo Chavez. The first issue will be 48 pages, divided in two sections. Future editions will be sixteen pages. Here in the United States the paper will be distributed for free, whereas in Venezuela it is sold six days per week for about thirteen cents. Started by business supporters of the president in Venezuela, Chavez's newspaper has a reported circulation there of 150,000.

Every day the news is good in El Correo del Presidente. The September 16 headline says it all in bold letters that fill a quarter of the page: "Investors Believe in Venezuela." The mail section is a crosscut of praise and supplication. Several articles proclaim the rebounding economy and how Venezuela is forging a new path. The paper also has an international section, a children's section, a sports page, and a cultural page.

The publishers of the newspaper plan to debut three editions in the United States. They insist it is a private enterprise that does not take state money. The idea is to produce different supplements for three separate cities: Houston, New York, and Miami. The goal of the supplements, which will each have a 5000 circulation, is simple: to reassure investors about economic developments in Venezuela. For the Houston edition, the focus will be primarily on oil. The New York issue is aimed at Wall Street and is likely to be printed in English. In Miami the focus will be on economic issues as well, but printed in Spanish. They also hope to expand to the Caribbean.

"It's not political," insists a source involved in the paper's expansion to the United States.

He is right only in the strictest sense. While there is a long tradition in Europe and Latin America of newspapers affiliated with political parties or ideologies, a Chavez broadsheet may be viewed simply as propaganda. "We want to promote investment in Venezuela," says the source, who requested anonymity because he claims he doesn't want to distract attention from the paper. "If it is not political it is more attractive to advertisers."

A Venezuelan restaurant called Caballo Viejo stands in a strip mall in Westchester. On a weekday afternoon, while a hard rain pounds outside, three sets of diners eat a late lunch; a raft of native specialties, such as guasacaca, spicy avocado sauce, accompanies their repast. The décor is simple but with a national accent: Tourism posters and baseball jerseys hang on the wall; the television is tuned to Venezuelan programs.

Behind a long bar stands owner Nilma Fernandez, taking a break from work in the kitchen. She wears a hairnet and apron. She says she didn't take a conventional route to life as a restaurateur. Until recently she was a top-level executive in a Venezuelan multinational, a position she trained for in part by earning a master's degree in business in the United States. She came to Miami for work and to visit family as often as twice a month. (Now, she says with a laugh, she visits Venezuela about as often.) But when Chavez came to power she decided it would be prudent to leave for a while. She says she detests the way the president behaves. Whenever he comes on the television she turns if off. She saw a for-sale advertisement for the restaurant in a Caracas newspaper. By February she was its owner.

"I took this decision for fear of Chavez," she says looking around the place. "It has been very hard."

Fernandez says business, thankfully, has been brisk. At the same time, a life slaving away in a kitchen was not what she had in mind. Adjusting to Miami has also been difficult.

Despite her dislike of Chavez, Fernandez says Venezuela's prospects are not as grim as she imagined. The economy is starting to improve, and the president appears serious about clamping down on corruption. "I have to admit it seems to be getting better," she says. Chavez's efforts on behalf of the poor are probably necessary, she concedes.

The majority of her Venezuelan customers think this way as well, she offers. People such as Leo Wong, sitting at a table in the corner. Wong is in Miami visiting his nephew. Between drags of a cigarette he expresses cautious optimism about the direction of the country under Chavez. "Things could get better," he says.

"Of course there are others who hate [Chavez]," Fernandez admits "but I think they are people who are very tied to Cubans or who have left for other reasons."

Fernandez is not sure how much longer she will remain in Miami. "I hope with all my heart that I was wrong to come here," she says before excusing herself to the kitchen.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >