Venezuelans are flocking to South Florida
Political and economic unrest propelling many to come here
BY TAL ABBADY
At the Bella Vista bakery on Miami's Northwest 36th Street, men and women
sip strong Venezuelan
coffee and eat ''cachitos'' -- small, cheese or ham-filled pastries that are a popular antidote to the
sugary American breakfast diet of muffins and cereal.
The morning regulars, who speak Spanish to one another and into their cellphones,
belong to a
growing class of Venezuelan businessmen and entrepreneurs that has taken root in South Florida over
the last 20 years.
In contrast to the vocal political lobby established by Cuban immigrants
in Miami, the emergence of a
Venezuelan professional community in Miami-Dade and Broward counties has been quiet and
The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau lists the number of Venezuelan nationals in
the United States at 126,000.
Demographers believe 40,781 live in Florida.
But unofficial figures are far less conservative.
According to statistics compiled by the Miami-based, El Venezolano, a weekly
with 30,000 subscribers,
as many as 180,000 Venezuelans currently live in Florida.
Many have fled the leftist regime of Hugo Chávez, a former paratrooper
who ended Venezuela's long
history of stable, civilian rule when he rose to power in 1998 and rewrote the constitution.
Yet Chávez is only the latest of several factors that have compelled
the steady flow of Venezuelans into
Osvaldo Munoz, 50, owner and editor of El Venezolano, says he loves Miami
``because it's as close as
you can get to the States without leaving Latin America.''
Munoz, who has been chronicling the Venezuelan influx for years, says widespread
corruption, an 80
percent hike in crime, a devalued Venezuelan bolivar and a collapsing banking sector have chased away
the country's educated classes.
''Things are worse now under Chávez,'' Munoz said. ``You have large
groups of disillusioned university
graduates and young professionals who see little opportunity under the new regime. They come to the
United States in search of a better life.''
Unofficial figures indicate that as many as 150,000 Venezuelans have moved
to the United States under
Chávez's Castro-influenced rule.
Moneyed, educated and skilled, arrivals of recent years have invested in
real estate, set up
independent companies and opened restaurants -- generating jobs and tax revenues.
Most notable is the rise of Venezuelan banking in Miami. Last October,
Commercebank announced it had doubled its assets to $2.1 billion in the last three years. The bank's
expansion is largely due to growing Venezuelan investments in South Florida.
But financial success may not be enough for true integration.
''We Venezuelans need to work toward establishing a stronger political
power base,'' said Munoz.
``The Cubans did it, and they're a good example.
``We must become politically involved here. We must participate, become American.''
For many newcomers, it's tough enough to adjust to a place where civil
liberties and a working justice
system are not the mere rhetoric of political demagogues.
Gunnar Rohrscheib, 35, owner of a Pakmail store in Plantation, lives in
nearby Pembroke Pines with his
wife and two daughters.
Rohrscheib said he came to the United States in search of political stability and personal safety.
''Life in Venezuela is filled with insecurity,'' he said. ``It's especially
true since Chávez, but the crime
problem has been around for years.''
His 35-year-old brother, Gustavo, was shot during a robbery six years ago in the capital, Caracas.
''He lay on the ground bleeding for quite a while and nobody helped,''
Rohrscheib said. ``People are
too scared of the cops to get involved in anything.''
DECISION TO LEAVE
The incident sparked Rohrscheib's efforts to save money, organize the paperwork
and move his family
out of the country -- an effort that was stymied for years by stringent U.S. immigration laws. His sister
also left, settling in Virginia, and his brother lives nearby in Broward County.
''I like the tranquillity of living in Florida, the organization, the order,''
Rohrscheib said. ``It's simply a
miracle to be here.''
Venezuelans feel at ease in their adopted homeland, said Xiomara Castillo,
vice-president of the
Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce in Miami.
''There's always been a parallel life with the U.S.,'' Castillo said of Venezuelans.
``Venezuelans have been coming to the U.S. for years, have owned second
homes here, have come
here to study, to shop, to buy merchandise for their businesses back home. We feel comfortable here.
For us, the U.S. is nothing new.''
Admittedly, the ''us'' excludes the 67 percent of Venezuelans who live
below the poverty level and lack
the means to escape difficult conditions.
''Lately, fear is what drives most Venezuelans to leave,'' Castillo said.
``People are fearful for their
A recent spate of kidnapping threats aimed at wealthy Venezuelan families added to those fears.
''For a time in the late 90s, the kidnappers would wait outside and take
pictures of children as they
poured out of their school buildings upon dismissal,'' Castillo said. The photos were then used as
threats and prompted the quick departures of several prominent families.
''At least here, there is respect for the law,'' Castillo said. ``In Venezuela,
people have had enough. All
they want is a lawful, orderly place to live.''
Norma Sigala, of Weston, can attest to the Venezuelan emigre's search for a safe refuge.
Her 21-year-old son, Fernando, was among 58 killed in 1993 in an oil pipeline
explosion along a major
highway near Caracas.
Sigala led a campaign to alert the public of the hazard of improperly installed
oil pipelines along
Venezuela's major roadways.]
She also exposed the lack of burn units in Venezuela's hospitals -- a fact
that sealed the fate of many
of the explosion's burn victims.
She and her supporters filed lawsuits against several major oil and communications
violating international laws regulating the installation of oil pipelines.
After three years of campaigning and an appeal to the InterAmerican Commission
of Human Rights in
Washington, another son, 24-year-old Diego, was kidnapped in Caracas.
``We received calls from the kidnappers telling us to shut up about the
pipeline accident if we wanted
our son to live. They said we were messing with the big guys, and that we'd better back off.''
After 47 days, during which the kidnappers demanded $10 million in ransom
money, Venezuelan police
found Diego alive, blindfolded and tied to a cot in a shack on a remote farm.
Although a corporate link to the kidnapping was suspected, police made only one arrest.
The following month, the entire Sigala family moved to Florida.
''I still love Venezuela,'' said Sigala, who's especially protective of
her youngest child, 15-year old
Christina. ``I miss the people, the mountains, the warmth.
``I wish I could be in my country, fighting for reform. But after everything
that's happened, nothing
matters more than my family's safety.''
Sigala is working towards a communications degree in Florida, and hopes
to use her expertise to
strengthen ties between the two countries.
``One day, I hope to return without fear.''