Florida will feel Chávez vote
If Venezuela President Hugo Chávez survives today's recall referendum, it could mean more Venezuelan immigration and investment in South Florida.
BY RICHARD BRAND
Today's recall vote on Venezuela's pugnacious president, Hugo Chávez, could have a profound financial and political impact on South Florida, home to a fast-growing expatriate community and focal point of U.S.-Venezuelan trade worth billions of dollars.
The outcome of the recall -- which analysts warn could be plagued with irregularities -- also could exacerbate tensions in oil-rich Venezuela and produce a ripple effect throughout a region that is closely linked to South Florida.
Recent polls suggest the race is impossible to predict.
But analysts say a Chávez win could produce a short-term surge in investment and immigration to Florida as wealthier Venezuelans move to protect their resources.
Venezuelans are bitterly divided by Chávez's populist rule. Chávez's critics says he is trying to impose a Cuba-style authoritarian regime. His supporters say he is sticking up for the poor in a nation where successive governments have squandered the vast petroleum wealth.
Since Chávez was first elected in 1998, those tensions have produced a failed April 2002 coup, deadly street clashes and the referendum itself. They also have precipitated a migration boom to South Florida of Venezuelans who typically are affluent and who largely oppose Chávez.
In recent years, thousands of Venezuelans have snapped up homes and condos in Aventura, Doral and Weston. A Chávez win -- which would allow him to serve out his term until 2007 -- could produce more of the same.
In 2002, the U.S. Census counted 41,000 Venezuelans in Florida, including 21,600 in Miami-Dade and 8,800 in Broward. Community leaders and the Venezuelan consulate say the number of Venezuelans today is closer to 100,000.
In 2001, Venezuela was Florida's fifth-ranking trading partner, according to Florida Enterprise, with business worth nearly $3.7 billion each year. In 2003, Venezuela ranked 12th in trade with Florida, at just under $2 billion. Many analysts attribute the downward swing to political turmoil in Caracas but expect an upward trend this year.
''We clearly benefit in regrettable ways from instability, but I think if Latin America were a peaceful and prosperous place, that would benefit us in the long run,'' said Carl A. Cira, director of the Summit of the Americas Center at Florida International University.
The vote also has political repercussions in South Florida, where the powerful Cuban-American community has forged alliances with Venezuelans. Many Cubans Americans equate Chávez with his closest ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom they abhor.
''There is no question that the Cuban-American community understands and appreciates the plight of the Venezuelans,'' said Joe Garcia, president of the Cuban-American National Foundation. ``Both communities are victims of political circumstances.''
If Chávez wins -- especially if the vote is challenged -- Garcia says he expects the bonds between Cubans and Venezuelans in South Florida to deepen. If Chávez loses, he said, Cubans will celebrate the vote as a victory against Castro.
''If the forces of democracy don't prevail, this could be the beginning of an immigration that could reach 200,000 people,'' Garcia said. ``Just like Nicaragua and the Central American wars and the Cuban revolution changed the face of South Florida, this could change the face of South Florida.''
In this election year, local politicians have taken note. ''It's important for the people of Venezuela, important for the county and the people of our nation that there is a true democratic government in Venezuela and not one that sees Cuba as a model of good government,'' said Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami-Dade mayoral candidate who will be on hand today to watch expatriates cast their votes.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has become perhaps Chávez's fiercest critic in Congress. Nelson played an important role in drafting Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's position on Venezuela, which presses for a tougher stance on Chávez. Many analysts say those moves are meant to curry favor with Cuban-American voters.
Today, Venezuelan expatriates from Key West to North Carolina will descend on the Coconut Grove Expo Center, 2700 Bayshore Dr., to cast their ballots.
Miami Consul-General Jose Antonio Hernández Borgo says 16,865 people are registered to vote in Miami, a tiny percentage of the overall Venezuelan voter rolls, which top 14 million.
But some opposition leaders say many registered voters could be blocked because of a new regulation passed by pro-Chávez electoral authorities preventing illegal immigrants from voting at consulates or embassies. No other country that allows expatriates to vote -- including Colombia, Honduras and Brazil -- has such a requirement.
It is unclear how many people will be affected by the new regulation, but prominent expatriates say they expect the consulate to try hard to block votes in Miami.
''They will put up as many obstacles as they can to prevent Venezuelans in the opposition from voting,'' said Carlos Fernández, a businessman who helped lead a two-month general strike that failed to oust Chávez and is now living in Weston and seeking asylum.
Fernández, who faces rebellion charges in Venezuela, said he would be among protesters today in Coconut Grove. ''The consulate is not working in the spirit of every person having the right to vote,'' he said.
Opposition leaders invited a handful of prominent South Floridians, including some Miami-Dade mayoral hopefuls, to serve as ''observers.'' That has Consul-General Hernández Borgo, a former military academy classmate of Chávez, fuming.
``This is a barbarity because observers have to be accredited by the National Electoral Council. If somebody like a mayor wants to visit and see the voting, then they are cordially invited as a visitor, but they are not observers.''
The recall is yet another example of how South Florida politics are closely intertwined with international events, analysts say.
''If Latin America sneezes, Miami catches a cold,'' said Garcia.