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Growing Numbers of Venezuelans Emigrate to US

  • Steve Mort

The number of Venezuelans settling in the United States is growing. Experts say the reelection in December of leftist President Hugo Chavez has triggered a wave of migration from the oil-rich South American country. Many of those leaving are wealthy and fear the government's socialist policies. Steve Mort reports from the U.S. state of Florida, which has seen a large influx of Venezuelan residents.

Up the highway from Miami is the upscale Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston. It is known locally as "Little Caracas". Venezuelans gather at the Don Pan bakery. one of a chain of Venezuelan-owned cafes.

Among those who come here for a taste of home is Oscar Franco, a Venezuelan lawyer and a director of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce. "Venezuelans will come here, we have our arepas, our traditional food, and you feel like you're at home," he explains. "And that's only natural. It's a very rewarding experience."

Franco, who came to Florida six years ago after accepting a job at a law firm, is one of thousands of Venezuelans now living in the United States.

The 2000 census put the number of Venezuelans in the United States at 126,000. But a more recent study by the Miami-based El Venezolano newspaper, suggests there may be as many as 180,000 Venezuelans living in Florida alone.

Many vehemently oppose the socialist policies of President Hugo Chavez, whom they accuse of wanting to turn their country into a Cuban-style communist dictatorship.

Miami's Cuban exile community has welcomed the Venezuelan immigrants and found common cause in denouncing the Chavez government's support for Fidel Castro.

Unlike some of their Cuban counterparts, most Venezuelans in the United States are wealthy. Professor Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University says many came to the United States because they were worried about losing their money.

"The future in Venezuela, in the views of many of the migrants that are here, is reserved primarily for lower class people who have been in some measure excluded from the political and economic spoils of the system over the last 40, 50, 100 years," says Gamarra.

President Chavez won reelection last year with a promise to push forward with what he calls a "socialist revolution" in Venezuela. His victory with more than 60 percent of the vote came with massive support from Venezuela's poor and working class.

Oscar Levin, a leading U.S. immigration attorney, believes rich Venezuelans are looking for both economic and political security, "because they're being threatened or put in jail, they have their properties taken away, they have their families threatened, they have their opportunities to continue to live in a peaceful manner being threatened."

But for the rich in Venezuela, leaving their privileged lifestyle behind to move to the United States is not always an attractive option.

Business leader Oscar Franco says some Venezuelan immigrants go through a grieving process. "You grieve for your language, you grieve for the scenery, you grieve for your family, you grieve for your friends, you grieve for your social status, financial status," he explains." You grieve because you have lost all of that, and it's a very, very difficult thing to adjust to."

But life in Venezuela, according to some, has become so difficult that people line up outside embassies to apply to live abroad.

Venezuelan immigration to U.S. cities like Miami and New York has risen steadily, and experts believe the trend will continue until Venezuela sees political change.