By Christine Armario
DORAL, Fla. — 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 death of the 58-year-old leftist. Many said they were rejoicing after nearly a decade and a half of socialist 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 Venezuela’s colors of yellow, blue and red, many expressed cautious optimism and concern after the announcement of the death.
“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 the oil-rich Latin American nation for years while espousing a fiery brand of socialism and 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 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 with family and friends to watch news broadcasts covering the death.
Doral Mayor Luigi Boria said 30 police officers were assigned to monitor reaction, but said all was under control late Tuesday.
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.
A large number of professionals and others left their country beginning after Chavez became president in 1999. Many did not agree with his socialist government, became frightened of soaring crime or simply sought better fortunes abroad.
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.
“I am very worried,” she said.
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 U.S. government 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. A nephew of President John F. Kennedy, he said his prayers go out to Chavez’s family and the Venezuelan people.