DORAL, Fla. (AP) — Cheering Venezuelans in the U.S. waved their country’s flag and expressed hope Tuesday that change would come to their homeland after the death of long-ruling populist President Hugo Chavez.
“He’s gone!” dozens in a largely anti-Chavez community chanted after word spread of the socialist’s death. Many said they were rejoicing after nearly a decade and a half of leftist rule heavily concentrated in the hands of Chavez.
“We are not celebrating death,” Ana San Jorge, 37, said amid a jubilant crowd in the Miami suburb of Doral. “We are celebrating the opening of a new door, of hope and change.”
Wearing caps and T-shirts in the Venezuelan colors of yellow, blue and red, many expressed cautious optimism and concern after Tuesday’s announcement that the 58-year-old head of the oil-rich Latin American nation had died.
“Although we might all be united here celebrating today, we don’t know what the future holds,” said Francisco Gamez, 18, at El Arepazo, a popular Venezuelan restaurant in Doral.
Chavez, though cancer-stricken in recent years, had led Venezuela for years while espousing a fiery brand of socialism and also bickering with a succession of U.S. governments over what he called Washington’s hegemony in the region.
Many in Florida’s large Venezuelan community and other such pockets around the U.S. are stridently anti-Chavez and had fled their home country in response to the policies his government instituted.
Doral has the largest concentration of Venezuelans living in the U.S. They have transformed what was a quiet suburb near Miami’s airport into a bustling city affectionately known as “Doralzuela.”
El Arepazo is at the heart of the community and sells arepas, corn flour patties stuffed with fresh cheese and other fillings. Hundreds of Venezuelans gathered at the restaurant Tuesday evening with family and friends to watch broadcasts covering the aftermath of his death.
Doral Mayor Luigi Boria said 30 police officers were assigned to monitor reaction, adding late Tuesday, “We have everything under control right now.”
An estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants live in the United States, according to U.S. Census figures. In addition to Florida, there are sizable Venezuelan communities in Los Angeles and New York.
At Mil Jugos restaurant in downtown Santa Ana, in Southern California’s Orange County, the Briceno family rejoiced. Daughter Norah Briceno left her country 14 years ago after struggling economically under Chavez despite a master’s degree in finance and a popular restaurant. She sold her business to a friend and opened an identical restaurant in California.
“When Chavez won, if you weren’t with the Chavez revolution, you were out and you barely had enough money to eat,” she said. “Finally, he’s died. He’s the reason we had to leave home and we’re all here.”
Her mother, Solange Briceno, is nervous about her son who remains with his family in Venezuela. The 73-year-old called him Tuesday in between serving customers steaming cachapas — Venezuelan sweet corn pancakes stuffed with cheese, chicken or black beans.
She told him to keep the children inside, she said. “I am very worried.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama said in statement the Chavez’s death marks a challenging time for Venezuela. He said the U.S. is committed to promoting democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law.
Chavez’s inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed a 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently played the anti-American card to stir up support.
Others, meanwhile, mourned Chavez’s death.
Former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II recalled that Chavez and the people of Venezuela donated 200 million gallons of heating oil to Citizens Energy, which distributes oil to lower income families in 25 states and Washington, D.C. Kennedy, who heads Citizens Energy, said Chavez cared about the poor at a time when “some of the wealthiest people on our planet have more money than they can ever reasonably expect to spend.”
Kennedy, a nephew of President John F. Kennedy, said his prayers go out to Chavez’s family and the Venezuelan people.
A large number of professionals and business people left their country starting after Chavez became president in 1999. Many did so because they did not agree with Chavez’s socialist government or because they became frightened by soaring rates of killings and kidnappings — or simply to seek better economic fortunes abroad. Many still have relatives in Venezuela and travel back regularly to see relatives or do business.
In October, thousands traveled to New Orleans in order to vote in Venezuela’s presidential election. Mario Di Giovanni, a Venezuelan student activist in Miami who helped organize voters in October, said he was apprehensive but hopeful about Venezuela’s future.
“I always knew that for things to get better they had to get worse,” he said. “So I guess this is the first step toward real change in Venezuela.”
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Santa Ana, Calif., Claudia Torrens in New York, and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario
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