The Miami Herald
January 23, 2007
A local Venezuelan- American group, and Chávez opponent, is helping the expatriate community gain influence in South Florida politics
A key Venezuelan opposition group, still licking its political wounds after a bitterly disappointing attempt to defeat Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez, has set its sights on building political influence in South Florida.
Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens has decided to focus on local causes -- such as the strong-mayor referendum for Miami-Dade County -- and on encouraging more Venezuelan Americans to get out the vote and run for office.
''If a [candidate] like a Jesus or a Methuselah or some kind of god came, then maybe I'd believe again, but for now I'm not participating in any political process in Venezuela,'' said Ernesto Ackerman, president of Miami-based IVAC.
IVAC has held citizenship drives to encourage Venezuelan green-card holders to become U.S. citizens and voter registration drives for Venezuelan Americans. The organization held a monthly speaker series of local politicians, looking to groom future Venezuelan-American activists and candidates. It gathered campaign contributions for a Venezuelan-American mayoral candidate, Pedro Castillo, who lost the election in Kentucky.
Most recently, IVAC has heavily backed Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez's strong-mayor initiative.
''The way the county functions now doesn't work,'' Ackerman said.
``Right now when something goes wrong it's nobody's fault. We need to put responsibility in someone's hands.''
IVAC's board is passing out ''Yes'' stickers, blasting e-mails, and holding small meetings for Venezuelan voters to promote the proposal. The vote is today.
The organization has an e-mail list of 35,000 Venezuelans living abroad -- 2,500 Venezuelans in South Florida who are U.S. citizens and another 2,500 in other states, including California, Georgia and Kentucky.
''Right now, we are like a baby taking its first steps, but if we can get united we will be a political force to be reckoned with,'' said Pedro Gonzalez, an IVAC founder and president of the Venamher Clinic in Doral.
IVAC played a key role in the local campaign for Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, working with other groups to gather volunteers to work the polls during the Dec. 3 election. More than 10,000 Venezuelans voted in Miami.
According to the 2000 Census, there are 41,500 Venezuelans in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, though community leaders say thousands more are here.
''There are other Venezuelan organizations who do good work, but this organization is dedicated to a fundamental task, which is to help Venezuelans incorporate themselves into life here in this new country,'' said Weston resident Carlos Guia, who attends many of IVAC's gatherings. ``That's more and more important now that many Venezuelans have been here long enough to become citizens.''
IVAC leaders acknowledge they face challenges to unite and energize South Florida's Venezuelans. The community, mostly anti-Chávez, is dispirited from the recent loss. Venezuelans are as divided here as in their own country among different opposition groups, and the community is scattered across many cities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, though they have emerging enclaves in Weston and Doral.
Many Venezuelan immigrants also plan to go back to Venezuela someday and view local politics as a waste of time.
HOPE BEGINS TO FADE
IVAC leaders say those obstacles are fading in South Florida as Venezuela's reality sets in.
''There was hope among Venezuelans here that they might be able to return one day to Venezuela, but now it looks like they will have to focus on putting their feet firmly on the ground here,'' said IVAC vice president Victor Luengo.
``There is an awakening happening now that wasn't there before.''
Chávez set off alarms when he recently announced an accelerated push toward his ''21st century socialism'' that calls, among other things, for the nationalization of Venezuela's power and telecommunications companies.
''The question Venezuelans are asking themselves now is: `When do you decide you can't influence your home country anymore?''' said Dario Moreno, associate professor of political science at Florida International University. ``They're like the Cubans in the early '60s, before things like the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis made it clear that [Fidel] Castro wasn't going to leave anytime soon and was taking the revolution in a radical direction.''
Like other immigrant groups, local Venezuelans look to the Cuban-American community as an example of the tremendous political influence newcomers can achieve.
''The Cubans have something that we should imitate, in that they understood that strength lies in unity,'' Ackerman said. ``It wasn't just political, and those in the community helped each other. One of the most important functions of IVAC is to help generate that feeling of social responsibility in the community.''
Ackerman and several IVAC members are on the board of the Venamher Clinic, which provides low-cost medical care to Venezuelans and other immigrants without health insurance. 'Venezuelans need to understand that they can't always be thinking, `what's in it for me?' '' Ackerman said.
While there are parts of the Cuban ascension that the IVAC leaders plan to imitate, there are others they do not.
''Cubans do everything in Spanish, from their radio to their protests, and because of that the American people don't totally understand the problems in Cuba,'' Ackerman said. ``We have to be able to reach the average American and get him to understand what is happening in Venezuela.''
Strategies aside, the Venezuelans will have to find common ground with more than the non-Hispanic, English-speaking population to achieve true political influence, Moreno said.
''For a group like the Venezuelans, who are spread out countywide, it's important for them to form coalitions with other large groups like the Nicaraguans, the Colombians and the Cubans,'' he said.
``They'll have to form coalitions to gain real power.''