DORAL, Fla. (AP) — Cheering Venezuelans in the U.S. waved their country’s flag and voiced hope that change would come to their homeland after the death Tuesday 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. 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 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. 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, at El Arepazo, a popular Venezuelan restaurant in Doral.
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. It wasn’t immediately clear when presidential elections would be held.
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. from Caracas, Venezuela, 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.
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 sought better fortunes abroad.
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.”
The restaurant 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 its tables with family and friends, riveted to the news broadcasts from their country Tuesday.
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.
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 72-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 the group he heads, Citizens Energy, which distributes oil to lower income families in 25 states and Washington, D.C.
Kennedy, who is a nephew to the late President John F. Kennedy, said Chavez cared about the poor.
He said his prayers go out to Chavez’s family and the Venezuelan people.
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