New York Times
January 23, 2008
WESTON, Fla. — In December 2002, Ariel Dunaevschi, then the owner of a furniture business in Caracas, Venezuela, was on vacation in New York with his family when opponents of President Hugo Chávez called a crippling labor strike hoping to bring the government to its knees.
As the protest wore on, paralyzing the country’s oil industry and devastating the economy, the Dunaevschis saw a very uncertain future for Venezuela and arrived at a painful decision: they would be better off staying in the United States.
They flew to Florida and rented a house here in Weston, a suburb west of Fort Lauderdale that has become so popular with Venezuelan immigrants, it is known as Westonzuela.
“I had a business in Venezuela, I had shops in Caracas, everything was working perfectly,” Mr. Dunaevschi, 39, said. “I left everything.” He added, “I began here from zero.”
The Dunaevschis are part of a wave of Venezuelans, mostly from the middle and upper classes, who have fled to the United States as Mr. Chávez has tightened his grip on the country’s political institutions, imposing his socialist vision and threatening to assert greater state control over many parts of the economy.
While many have been able to establish legal residency and obtain a green card, either through business or marriage, others have remained here illegally.
The surge is an example of how the political and social realities of Latin America are immediately reflected on the streets of South Florida, a dynamic that has come to define this region in the past half century.
Many Venezuelans have been able to transfer some of their wealth as they have settled in America. For two years, Mr. Dunaevschi flew to Caracas every few months carrying empty suitcases, which he filled with the family’s essential belongings and carted back to Miami.
In Caracas, he laid off the family’s employees, sold his cars, furniture and properties and eventually closed his business. Meanwhile, in Miami, he opened a new furniture company and settled into his new American life.
According to census data, the Venezuelan community in the United States has grown more than 94 percent this decade, from 91,507 in 2000, the year after Mr. Chávez took office, to 177,866 in 2006. Much of that rise has occurred in South Florida, making the Venezuelan community one of the fastest growing Latino subpopulations in the region this decade. In many ways, the Venezuelan influx is reminiscent of the Cuban migration spurred by Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and his imposition of a socialist state.
Manuel Corao, director of one of several Venezuelan newspapers published in South Florida, said the main reason for the migration was a fear that Mr. Chávez would significantly alter the quality of life for the middle and upper classes.
“The principle reason is fear of change of daily life, the loss of private property, loss of independence from the government, fear of the loss of constitutional rights and individual liberties,” said Mr. Corao, who relocated permanently from Venezuela in 1996 and runs Venezuela al Dia, a thrice-monthly tabloid with offices in Doral, a Miami suburb where Venezuelans have settled.
Like many of the Cubans who came to South Florida in the early Castro years, most Venezuelans who arrived during the first few years of the Chávez administration probably did not expect to stay long.
“They didn’t think Chávez would last long, so a lot of Venezuelans are moving their families nearby, and the nearest place in the states is Miami,” said Thomas D. Boswell, professor of geography at the University of Miami.
Sinking their roots into the South Florida soil, Venezuelans have shifted their money into American banks, married and divorced, opened businesses, become active in local politics, and seen their children graduate from American schools.
Mr. Dunaevschi’s decision to keep his family in the United States was made easier because his wife, from whom he is getting divorced, was an American citizen. “I could work,” he said. “But for a lot of people without papers, it’s more complicated.”
Like many Venezuelans who have recently come to South Florida, Mr. Dunaevschi underwent a significant change in his standard of living. Faced with a much higher cost of living, he abandoned some of the luxuries he enjoyed in Venezuela, like a domestic staff and chauffeur.
“Life was very good there,” he said. But like many Venezuelans here, he cannot imagine returning as long as Mr. Chávez is in power, a sentiment that echoes the resolve of many Cuban exiles not to return to Cuba until Mr. Castro dies.
“I won’t consider it, as long as there’s that guy there,” Mr. Dunaevschi said.
Even the defeat of Mr. Chávez’s constitutional overhaul in December, which would have allowed him to remain in office indefinitely, did not seem to offer the deeply cynical exile community much new hope. In the meantime, Venezuelan exiles go on with their new lives here.
There are now at least five newspapers and magazines that feature news about Venezuela and the Venezuelan community in South Florida. Venezuelans have started restaurants and bakeries, business groups, political organizations working on both American and Venezuelan issues, and even a medical center for low-income Venezuelans.
“We untied the boat in Venezuela and now we’re here,” said Ernesto Ackerman, who runs a medical supplies business in Miami. “We’ve tied knots in this port.”
Mr. Ackerman is also president of Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, a group that is trying to encourage Venezuelan participation in local politics. He and other community leaders say they are inspired by the example of the Cubans, who have come to dominate South Florida politics, but they acknowledge that the Venezuelans are still in their political infancy here.
Venezuelans are outnumbered in South Florida by Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Mexicans, Nicaraguans and Dominicans, according to data from the 2006 census, but Venezuelan leaders here believe their population may have vaulted to fourth place on that list, upwards of 100,000, taking into account those who have overstayed tourist visas.
The growing Venezuelan population has been a windfall for Miami banks, as many Venezuelans bring their money here. Ken Thomas, a banking analyst in Miami, said the amount of that capital flight was unclear, although he said it was “clearly in the billions.”
“One of the interesting things about South Florida is that when Latin America is doing well, we do well,” said Israel Kreps, who handles public relations for Mercantil Commercebank, a Venezuelan-owned bank based in Coral Gables. “When Latin American is doing badly, we do well.”
For many Venezuelans, the move has come at an emotional price. In return for the relative political and economic security of the United States, they have suffered the cultural dislocation and homesickness familiar to immigrants everywhere.
One place they have sought camaraderie is El Arepazo, a small cafeteria-style Venezuelan restaurant attached to a Citgo gas station in Doral.
“It’s become a place of celebrations and protests,” said Carlos Nuñez, 46, a Venezuelan who moved to Miami in 2000 and now owns a company that sells heavy construction machinery. “We celebrate the failures of Chávez and bemoan the successes of Chávez.”
On a recent Thursday night, several dozen people — mainly men, mainly Venezuelans — had gathered at El Arepazo for a weekly dominos session. The matches were lively, the players raucous. They heckled each other and the news broadcasts on El Arepazo’s seven television screens, which were showing Venezuelan soap operas and news footage of Mr. Chávez celebrating with two Colombian women, whose release from Colombian rebels he had negotiated.
Daniel Garcia, 34, an events promoter in Miami, stood off to one side watching the games. Mr. Garcia moved to Miami from Venezuela in 1996 to take a summer job distributing a friend’s entertainment magazine. But he ended up staying longer than he expected, and once Mr. Chávez came to power in 1998, he decided to make his relocation permanent.
“There was no question I wasn’t going back,” he said. “No way.”
Mr. Garcia is now married and has a child. He said places like El Arepazo kept him and other Venezuelans connected and helped numb the longing for home.
“For a while you may forget about Chávez, forget about Miami, you’re drinking your beer, you’re insulting everybody, you’re having fun,” he said. “It’s a way to forget about everything.”