DORAL, Florida: Cheering Venezuelans in the U.S. waved their country’s flag and expressed hope 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 swiftly of the death of the 58-year-old leftist Tuesday. Many said they were rejoicing after nearly a decade and a half of socialist rule, heavily concentrated in Chavez’s hands.
“We are not celebrating death,” Ana San Jorge, 37, said amid a jubilant crowd in a Miami suburb. “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. But some were anxious, too.
“Although we might all be united here celebrating today, we don’t know what the future holds,” said Francisco Gamez, 18.
In Caracas, Venezuela’s foreign minister announced late Tuesday that Vice President Nicolas Maduro would be interim president and run as the governing party candidate in elections to be called within 30 days.
Chavez, though cancer-stricken in recent years, had led the oil-rich Latin American nation for years by espousing a fiery brand of socialism. All the while he bickered 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 similar communities around the U.S. are stridently anti-Chavez and had fled their home country in response to the policies his government instituted.
One of them is Marcel Mata, a 28-year-old opponent of Chavez, who now lives in New Orleans. He moved to the U.S. during a turbulent period in 2002 and said the prospects of an election were dizzying for opposition forces long unable to defeat the seemingly larger-than-life Chavez.
After 14 years of Chavez, Mata said: “It’s hard to believe. There seemed to be no end in sight and now there’s a sense of hope.”
Mata said Maduro may not have the campaign allure of the charismatic Chavez, adding “there’s no way anyone in his party can fill his shoes.” But he said he is nervous about the transition no matter who wins, warning there could be trouble.
Many 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 sought better fortunes abroad.
An estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants live in the United States, according to U.S. Census figures. Besides Florida, there are sizable Venezuelan communities in Los Angeles and New York.
In Southern California’s Orange County, the Briceno family rejoiced. Daughter Norah Briceno left 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.”
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.