LAURA FIGUEROA, RUI FERREIRA AND LUISA YANEZ
The Miami Herald
May 31, 2007
Venezuelans in South Florida are seeing a new kind of anti-Hugo Chávez demonstrations: ones led by young opponents.
Exiled Venezuelans living in South Florida are seeing something new in their homeland: Young faces leading street demonstrations against leftist President Hugo Chávez.
''They have finally awakened,'' said Patricia Andrade, head of the Venezuelan Awareness Foundation in Miami-Dade, referring to the crowds of college students who have staged five days of civil disobedience in the streets of Caracas.
''This is totally new. Venezuelan kids have never turned against Chávez,'' she said. ``I'm glad, but I pray for them, too.''
BEHIND THE OUTCRY
It took Chávez's pulling the plug on the country's most popular television station, Radio Caracas Televisión, on Sunday to spark young Venezuelans' ire.
The station was the oldest and one of only two that oppose Chávez. He refused to renew their broadcasting license, saying that it conspired to destabilize his government and practiced ``coup-plotting.''
Since RCTV went black on Sunday, clashes between police and students, who have been sprayed with water hoses and shot with rubber bullets, have dominated the news. No one has been killed.
From her Miami-Dade home, Andrade has been glued to cable television and Internet news from Venezuela and has watched the youthful uprising grow with both pride and dread.
As a show of solidarity, she took part in a rally that attracted around 80 people outside a Venezuelan eatery in Doral on Wednesday night. More are planned for the coming days.
''I think these are kids without a political point of view, but closing the station really upset them,'' she said. ``This was the first television station in the country. We were raised on it.''
RCTV, which had been on the air since 1953, has a typical lineup of entertainment soap operas and news shows.
As days pass and street clashes escalate, Andrade fears a civil war may break out -- with the students on one side and Chávez supporters on the other. In his latest speech, Chávez called for his backers to suppress the students. There could be bloodshed, she fears.
''I'm beginning to worry for these kids. We need to get protection for them from abroad,'' Andrade said.
Ernesto Ackerman, president of the local Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, agreed and said the young demonstrators may add fuel to the opposition now that they have seen the real Chávez.
''He has taken his mask off for all the world to see,'' he said.
''We needed young people, who have been apathetic, to join this fight. I think they were waiting for an opportunity, and when they realized it had arrived, they have come out in throngs.'' With upheaval in their country, Ackerman foresees many Venezuelans attempting to flee, likely for South Florida.
''Everyone is scared about this situation when they hear of the Chavistas shooting'' rubber bullets at students, Ackerman said.
``I definitely think a lot more people are going to want to come to the United States, but we must not forget those who are staying and fighting for the sake of democracy.''
Already, there are an estimated 50,000 Venezuelans living South Florida. The number of asylum claims has risen dramatically in recent months. Investors, too, are now fleeing the country.
Teresa Sarmiento, who was among the demonstrators in Doral, said things have to change.
''The Venezuelan people can't continue to live under this uncertainty. Our future is at stake. A foreign model, Cuba's, is being forced on us which has nothing to do with our reality,'' she said.
Outside of Cafe Canela, a popular Venezuelan eatery in Weston, getting a heaping plate of white rice and carne asada wasn't the only thing on the minds of customers during lunchtime.
Venezuelan visitor Olinda Maestre said that despite news footage of volatile protests in the streets of Caracas, she did not think the temperament was the same throughout the country.
''The whole country isn't like this,'' Maestre said.
``In Caracas, Valencia and Maracaibo there's a lot of uproar, but if you look outside of these cities, people are relatively calm. I live in Oriente, and every now and then we realize what's going on because of the news. If not, we wouldn't even notice.''