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Venezuelans savor solace in Miami

With a strike worsening in the South American country, more people retreat to the city that has long been a second home.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 15, 2003


MIAMI -- It was the day after Christmas that Venezuelan businessman Luis Bethencourt finally decided it was time to get his family out of the country.

At a condominium meeting for his upscale barrio in the east of the capital, Caracas, residents were planning for war.

"No one was talking about fixing up the park," he said. "They were drawing up inventories of weapons."

More than 40 days into a general strike that has crippled the state oil industry and closed most schools, Bethencourt fears his country is headed toward violent confrontation.

He and many others who can afford to leave are packing their bags -- and most are heading to South Florida. Some own homes in the area, which has long been a favorite holiday and shopping destination for Venezuelans. Others are renting.

Desperate parents have been showing up at one elementary school in Key Biscayne, where 15 new students -- all Venezuelan -- have enrolled since classes restarted last week.

Opposition leaders called the strike to demand the resignation of leftist President Hugo Chavez. Despite mounting economic chaos, Chavez has refused to budge, accusing the opposition of trying to mount a coup.

Fearing the worst, Venezuelans in South Florida who plan to return home to join antigovernment street protests are stocking up on protective material at security stores. On the streets of Caracas, opposition demonstrators clash almost daily with riot troops equipped with tear gas. Several people have died in shootings.

"People are afraid," said Josephina Capriles, the Venezuelan-born owner of Spytrix, a North Miami security store where sales of bullet-proof jackets and gas masks are booming. "I used to sell two bulletproof jackets a month but now I sell three a day," she said, adding that the extra sales were to Venezuelans.

Capriles offers discounts to Venezuelan clients. An Italian-made jacket costs $375, reduced from $498. Gas masks go for around $140. Other popular items include Mace, stun guns and more powerful electromuscular disruption devices, which can put down a human target at 20 feet.

"We are going back, but we have to be prepared," said Leopoldo Baptista, the 60-year-old owner of a major Venezuelan construction company. Baptista spent several thousand dollars at Spytrix on protective gear for his wife and children.

Venezuelans have always felt at home in Miami. After an oil boom in the 1960s made the country the fifth-largest exporter of crude in the world, middle-class Venezuelans became frequent visitors at Miami shopping malls.

At least 40,000 Venezuelans live in South Florida, according to the 2000 census. The figure is likely much larger as nonresidents tend to be undercounted. Most new arrivals enter the country on tourist visas valid for up to six months.

Since the strike began, it is not uncommon to see cars in South Florida flying the Venezuelan flag. About 40 demonstrators held a protest recently outside a Citgo gas station, a chain affiliated with Venezuela's state-owned oil company.

When opposition leaders announced in late December that they were calling for a February referendum on Chavez's rule, the Venezuelan consulate in Miami was besieged by thousands of expatriates seeking to register to vote.

"We registered almost 4,000 new voters," said the consul, Antonio Hernandez, double the existing number.

Like Miami, Venezuela was a refuge for Cuban exiles after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. These days the political ties are stronger. Opponents of Chavez accuse him of trying to create a Castro-style dictatorship.

On Saturday Cuban exiles are organizing a rally in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood to express their solidarity with the anti-Chavez cause.

Venezuela's political crisis is a daily topic on Spanish-language TV and radio news shows. Miami's Univision affiliate, WLTV-Ch. 23, devoted a 20-minute segment on its Saturday morning show, Miami Now, to a studio debate between Venezuelan exiles.

Two Miami radio hosts made headlines last week when they caught Chavez in an on-air prank. The pair managed to have a live phone conversation with Chavez by using tape of Castro's voice.

Cuban exiles also are playing host to dissident Venezuelan military officers who have rebelled against Chavez.

Last week the president's former pilot, air force Maj. Juan Diaz, held a news conference accusing Chavez of providing financial support to the former Taliban government in Afghanistan and al-Qaida. Diaz, who offered no evidence, also alleged that Venezuelan civilians were being sent to Cuba for secret military training.

During the political crisis, airlines have trimmed their operations from 21 daily flights between Miami and Venezuela to eight. Revenue lost from visitors to Miami is estimated at $60-million a month, according to the Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce.

The strike also has hurt local businesses, which have been unable to ship goods.

With supplies drying up in Caracas, Venezuelans who travel home are presented with long shopping lists from friends and relatives.

"I just got a call from a family member asking me to bring flour, coffee, beer and Pepsi," Bethencourt said. "Can you believe it? Those are all Venezuelan export products. Now there isn't even any Pepsi!"

He and two brothers are planning to rotate in and out of Venezuela for the next few months keeping an eye on the family business.

"I have no idea how long this will last," he said.

Despite the comparisons with Cuba's Castro, Bethencourt and other Venezuelan exiles are hoping they won't have to wait 40 years.

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