April 30, 2019 / 9:25 PM / 24 days ago

Miami’s Venezuelan expats pause and pray for Maduro’s ouster

DORAL, Fla. (Reuters) - Hundreds of Venezuelans packed into a Miami-area restaurant on Tuesday, their eyes fixed on television images of violence in their home country, yet hopeful that the unrest spelled the beginning of the end of President Nicolas Maduro’s rule.

“Today is the day,” said Erica Rodriguez said as she dined with her daughter and parents at El Arepazo in Doral, Florida.

“Nobody here is working. Everybody is glued to the television waiting for more information about when Venezuela will be free,” said the 40-year-old Uber driver, who fled Caracas for Miami last year.

Rodriguez was part of a throng of Venezuelans, many of them draped in their flag’s yellow, blue and red, who turned up at El Arepazo on Tuesday after opposition leader Juan Guaido’s call for the military to rise up against the government. The popular eatery is a little piece of home to many of Venezuelans who came to South Florida to find a better life.

Amid conversations about their hopes for the South American country’s future, patrons enjoyed traditional dishes like the sweet braised beef called asado negro and white cornmeal cakes filled with chicken salad, or salty cheese and black beans.

According to a 2018 study by the University of Miami, more than 200,000 Venezuelans now live in Florida in communities such as Doral, a fast-growing suburb near Miami, and Weston, which lies about 20 miles (30 km) west of Fort Lauderdale. 

The influx of Venezuelans has altered the face of towns like Doral. Many brought their families in search of a new life while others came with little more than the clothes on their backs, fleeing a country in the midst of political and economic collapse after three decades of socialist rule. 

“The influx has meant consistent, fast growth as well as a lot of investment for businesses and other projects,” said Manny Sarmiento, president and chief executive of Doral’s Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, it has also put pressure on this bedroom community, clogging the streets with nearly impassable traffic during rush hour and pushing rents up to levels only seen in downtown Miami or on Miami Beach. 

Unlike the Cubans who fled the Communist-controlled island in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, many of the Venezuelans living in Miami say they will return the moment Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is out of power.

“I’ve been here for 20 years but I’ve always felt Venezuelan,” said Raul Leoni, 66, who owns an import-export company and whose father was president of Venezuela from 1964 to 1969. “That’s where I want to be and I think the country will need the help of many people to reverse the damage done over the last three decades.”

Leoni said he has been in contact with members of the Venezuelan military since before daybreak, urging them to support Guaido, who has been recognized as the president by 50 countries, including the United States.

Should Maduro leave office, Leoni said he would work to redirect people and investment back to Venezuela after being drained for decades. 

For those Venezuelans who have recently arrived in Miami, the urge to return is even greater. 

“In Venezuela I was a travel agent, I made a good living,” said 44-year-old Laura Quintero, who survives by driving for Uber and working odd jobs whenever she can get them. “This time it’s different, the protests are different and we have to get back so we can start rebuilding our country.”

Reporting by Zach Fagenson; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis

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