U.S. Venezuelans Reflect on Chávez's Fate and Legacy

A group of Venezuelans in Doral, Florida, gathered for a vigil at a local restaurant on the day President Hugo Chavez was supposed to be sworn in.PlayABC News/Univision
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DORAL, Florida-- Arquímedes Rivero just wants to know if Hugo Chávez is dead or alive. "We deserve to know the truth about what's happening in our country," says Rivero, a Venezuelan audio-book publisher who settled in Miami 10 years ago. "Nobody knows if this situation will last one month, one year or the full six years [term]," said Rivero. He's one of a handful of Venezuelan dissidents who congregated at the local restaurant "El Arepazo 2" on Thursday January 10th, the day President Hugo Chávez vez was to be sworn in.

An estimated 189,219 Venezuelans live in the United States, with 91,091 living in Florida according to Census figures. Many of them have settled in the Miami suburbs of Doral or Weston, which have come to be known as "Doralzuela" or "Westonzuela" because of the large concentration of Venezuelans.

At the heart of the Venezuelan community here is "El Arepazo 2", a restaurant that has become the political meeting place for expats, especially since the Venezuelan consulate in Miami was closed a year ago. Lorenzo Di Stefano, "El Arepazo 2's" owner, says he came to Florida for his kids' tennis training, "way before Chávez," but with the changing political situation in Venezuela he decided to stay and opened his business

At "El Arepazo 2," four flat-screen TV's flanked the seating area -- two were tuned to Globovision, Venezuelan's only independent television station, and other Spanish-language news networks broadcasting live coverage of the situation in Venezuela.

"It's no secret that in Venezuela there's no rule of law," said Xiomara Gandaeta, a realtor who settled in Venezuela before Chávez rose to power. "After this, we can really see that this as a dictatorship, they don't respect the law, don't respect the rights of Venezuelans, regardless of whether you are a Chavista or not," said Gandaeta.

A large number of Venezuelans cited the country's high crime and kidnapping rates as the reasons why they left their country after Chávez came into power. "It's not even if you're in favor or not of the government, it's the amount of violence going on," said 24-year-old college student Mario Di Giovanny, who left two years ago. "And crime affects everybody, no matter which party you support."

"I never imagined that our business would turn into the Venezuelan "Versailles"," said Di Stefano referring to the restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood that's the meeting place for exiled Cubans.

Di Stefano, like many other Venezuelans, doesn't think about going back, even if Chavez were to leave the presidency. "I miss my country, but with our deep roots in the United States I don't think there's any turning back."