Afraid of Hugo Chávez, Venezuelans leave home

Por Venezuela Real - 2 de Mayo, 2007, 10:43, Categoría: Prensa Internacional

The Miami Herald
April 30, 2007

Ruth Capriles is one of the Venezuelans who left Venezuela because of the political situation there.

There wasn't one particular event that made Arturo Araque decide to leave Venezuela with his wife and two kids. It was an accumulation of President Hugo Chávez's politics, increasing crime and growing economic insecurity.

''My sense is that we're trapped with this man in power,'' Araque told The Miami Herald. "I doubt that Venezuela will have another government anytime soon.''

Araque, 38, an industrial designer has joined a growing wave of Venezuelans trying to move out of this Andean nation of 26 million people, with the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East.

U.S. embassy officials say inquiries for U.S. visas rose by one-third from March 2006 to March of this year, and requests to obtain U.S. passports -- mostly by people claiming to be sons and daughters of U.S. citizens -- have doubled over the past two years. Inquiries for Canadian visas are up 69 percent since last year, officials at that embassy say.

Venezuelans overwhelmed recent job fairs held here by Canada and Australia, and early morning lines of visa seekers routinely wrap around the Portuguese, Italian and Spanish embassies.

While their desired destinations vary, they share a common theme: They will leave behind relatives and broken dreams, and they do not know when they will return.

''It's an adventure. No one guarantees that you'll get work,'' Araque said. ``[But] there's no economic stability here.''

While upper-class Venezuelans have been trickling out for years, the exodus appears to have stepped up after Chávez's resounding electoral victory in Decembersecured him another six-year term. The president has since ramped up his divisive rhetoric and began purging the government, his political party and even the military of anyone who is not aboard his project for "21st Century socialism.''

'At all levels, it is required . . . to raise the flag that says `fatherland, socialism or death,' '' the president told a military audience last month, adapting a phrase from one of his mentors, Fidel Castro. "If anyone doesn't feel comfortable with this, it's better they retire from the [military] service.''

Ruth Capriles is among those Chávez opponents who went from the ballot box to the ticket counter after the president's landslide re-election in December.

''After that, I realized we're not going to be able to get rid of him,'' said Capriles, who moved to Florida a month ago and now lives in Miramar. "I finally reached a point when I decided there was nothing else left to do but leave.''

Capriles was active in groups working against Chávez, going door-to-door to campaign for the candidate who ran against him, Manuel Rosales.

''I wasn't politically persecuted, but after doing that kind of opposition work everything becomes more difficult,'' she said. "Finding work or any dealing with the government becomes more complicated, so we decided to give living here a try.''

Despite his passionate detractors, Chávez remains immensely popular. He has won three elections since 1998, fought off a recall referendum in 2004 and is financing vast social programs that offer health and education services in areas long neglected by governments past.

His economy is rumbling along with the help of high oil prices, and Chávez's supporters say he's spread the country's wealth. A recent study by Caracas-based Datos Information Resources said that the buying power of Venezuela's lowest socio-economic class has increased by 150 percent in the last 3 1⁄2 years, and that half of all Venezuelans have made use of at least one of Chávez's social programs.

''I don't think leaving the country is going to resolve anyone's problems,'' lawyer Marbelis Valero, 38, said as she waited in line for a short-term tourist visa at the U.S. embassy. "People exaggerate what's going on here.''

Chávez's unapologetic pressures on those who do not support his government has shaken Araque and others.

Since his last re-election, the president has accelerated his move toward socialism by using the power to rule by decree, granted to him by a congress dominated by his allies, to push forward changes in the educational system and take over private oil fields, telecommunications and energy companies. He also decided not to renew the license of the country's largest private television station.

A presidential commission made up of judges, politicians and activists, among others, is now working behind closed doors on an update of the constitution -- which will have to be approved in a referendum -- that would eliminate term limits so he can seek re-election beyond his current 2013 mandate.

These political shifts, along with rising inflation and crime, have an increasing number of Venezuelans, largely from the middle and upper classes, wondering where they can start anew.

To be sure, some of the concerns are based on a rumor mill that produces wild reports about Chávez's future plans on issues such as private property rights and reforms to the educational system.

A recent e-mail making the rounds, for instance, claims that occupants of properties that are ''underoccupied'' will be forced to move out and make way for needier families. The Miami Herald found no evidence that such a move is under consideration.

But mixed in is a dose of reality. Chávez's government indeed has taken over what his government deems ''idle'' rural lands and factories, and created an uneasy environment with offhand comments on how no one should have more than one house and how the education system should be ``socialist.''

People like Araque and his wife, Carolina Palacios, 32, believe some of those rumors might eventually come true. They own an apartment in Caracas.

For her part, Palacios said she started thinking about leaving Venezuela after their second child was born in 2003, long before her husband had seriously entertained the notion.

''There are rumors that this is going to be the same as Cuba,'' she told The Miami Herald. ``All the basic ideas are the same.''

Araque and his wife thought about applying to the United States -- they have relatives in Tampa -- but decided instead that Canada would be easier because that country is searching for professionals. Araque has his own business building stands for large expositions.

After applying for Canadian visas last year, they visited Palacios' brother, who lives in Toronto, in December. They found they could hack the cold and that there were decent job prospects.

Now, they hope, it's a matter of time before they'll leave Venezuela for good.

''I've convinced myself it's time to go,'' Araque said. ``It's either I go or I stay here and take it from this guy [Chávez] . . . There's no choice, really.''

Miami Herald staff writer Casey Woods contributed to this report.

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