Venezuelans Celebrate in Doral Following Death of Hugo Chavez

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Venezuelans partied late into the night in Doral following yesterday's announcement that Hugo Chávez had died from cancer. Restaurant El Arepazo II, on the corner of NW 39th Street and 79th Avenue, was swarmed with more than 300 people waving flags, eating arepas, and sipping Polar.

But nearly all those in attendance insisted they weren't celebrating the demise of the socialist president, but rather the changes his death will usher in for the oil-rich nation.

"I'm not exactly happy," Pedro Mena said. "But his death will have positive consequences for our country."

The whole scene was a bit surreal, particularly for the other exilio in town: Cubans who for decades have been planning a party to celebrate the demise of their own strongman only to see him outlive his Venezuelan protégé.

The situation was made stranger still by the fact that Chávez was democratically re-elected -- if much despised by many Venezuelans -- just months ago, which can't be said for the Castros.

Mena, a local representative of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (Democratic Unity Roundtable), which opposed Chávez in last October's election, was the first to make a speech.

Over the din of music and televisions, and the fumes of frying arepas, he pumped his fist in the air and thanked Venezuelans inside and outside the country for pressuring Chávez's administration to admit what many had suspected for weeks: that the president was dead.

"Long live the students of Venezuela! Long life the youth of Venezuela!" he shouted from atop a chair before reminding the crowd they still had to vote in the upcoming election. "Chávez's death doesn't mean that chavismo is dead," he told New Times afterward.

In typical Venezuelan style, there was a Hummer parked outside. Those inside varied from women with expensive stilettos and handbags to families with small kids swept up in the chants. One young girl joined the grownups in singing, "Fidel is next! Fidel is next!"

But nearly all had similar stories of fleeing Venezuela because of Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution.

"My country has been in decline ever since he took over," said Gildred Conte, who arrived at El Arepazo with her granddaughter Yailis Almarza. She came to Miami in 1999 shortly after Chávez took office and still has a daughter there. "There is repression there. People go ten hours without light because of blackouts. There is no clean water. And there are shortages of things like food, even bread.

"Now Venezuela can flourish once again," she said.

Andres Malave just left Venezuela two months ago. The 18-year-old college student said he couldn't remember a time before Chávez took over. "That's why I'm excited," he said. "The people around Chávez were corrupted with power. They told a lot of lies. They took companies away from people and then ran them into the ground. Hopefully, things will now improve."

But Malave also said his family in Caracas was so afraid of violence that they had holed up for a few days with food and water. "Nobody knows what will happen."

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes. Follow this journalist on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

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