The Miami Herald
January 24, 2002

 Venezuelans in Miami protest Chávez's policies


 Two hundred impassioned Venezuelans dressed in black staged a demonstration on Wednesday in front of their country's Miami consulate to protest the policies of their nation's populist president, Hugo Chávez.

 ``No to communism!'' they shouted. ``Liberty.'' ``We don't want a Cuba in Venezuela.'' Their voices, and the sound of them blowing whistles and hammering on pots and pans, filled Brickell Avenue and caused many drivers passing by to honk their horns in a show of support.

 Diego Arguello, 67, a retired businessman from Miami Beach, said the gathering was timed to coincide with similar protests in New York City and Washington, all staged to show support for the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marching in the streets of Caracas and other cities on Wednesday in opposition to Chávez's leftist-leaning government.

 It was one of the first political demonstrations staged by the mostly business- and professionally oriented Venezuelan community in South Florida, estimated by protest organizers at between 80,000 and 100,000 people. There was a smaller gathering in December to coincide with an earlier mass protest in Caracas.

 Arguello said he and his friends favor a referendum in Venezuela that could result in the removal of Chávez from power if foes of the president get a majority of the votes. He said recent polls in Venezuela indicate that if there were an election, Chavez would lose.

 The once-jailed leader's term comes to an end in 2006.

 ``We want to do it peacefully,'' he said. ``We don't want a civil war, or the army to be on the streets. For 45 years we have had a democratic tradition. Every Venezuelan in his heart is a democrat, except for Chávez and the people around him.''


 Many of the protesters wore a rendition of Venezuela's red, blue and yellow flag on their black caps, or waved the national colors.

 They said they dressed in black as a sign of mourning for what is happening in their oil-rich country.

 Other Latin Americans joined the group.

 A handful of Cuban Americans waved Cuba's flag. Nestor Ramos, 64, a retired printing operator, said he came ``to show support for the Venezuelan people because Castro is teaching Chávez the communist way. He wants to show Chávez how to hold down the entire country.''

 Mauricio Corredor, a Colombian, said he was there because he claimed ``Chávez is supporting the guerrillas in Colombia, and I don't want war in my country.''

 The Venezuelan president has been criticized in Colombian government circles for his occasional unsolicited attempts to intervene in the ruinous guerrilla war in their
 neighboring country.

 Beatriz Rangel, a corporate strategist, said the demonstration was organized by the Democratic Coordination of Civic Associations, a group with 350 members formed recently to oppose Chávez. She said the group was alarmed by the president's policies, which she said include curbs on freedom of the press and a close working relationship with the Cuban government.

 Rangel, who was also chief of staff to former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, said Venezuelans opposed to Chávez know that they have to organize early to prevent what she said could be a Fidel Castro-style dictatorship. Chávez was elected in 1999, and he has been seeking to extend his time in office.

 Castro and Chávez have met several times and Chávez has said Venezuela would do well to emulate certain aspects of the Cuban revolution. Members of Venezuela's business elite have been offended by Chávez's efforts at land reform, and the middle class has become increasingly alarmed about his economic and political policies.

 Rangel said that ``when there is a dictatorship, you (democratic forces) have to organize yourselves before they (the government) can consolidate their power. Castro was able to consolidate in Cuba before the opposition could do anything,'' she said, ``although, of course, the Cold War helped him bring about his dictatorship.''

 Liliana Consalvi, 22, was one of many younger Venezuelans shouting insults across the street toward the gleaming Banco Industrial de Venezuela building where the
 consulate is located.


 Her friends, Nelly Molina, 23, and Mario Lagreca, 24, joined her at the curb, shaking their fists and picking up the cadence of anti-Chávez slogans.

 "The man is a Venezuelan Taliban,'' she said. ``They put him in jail [in 1992] when he tried to seize power through violence'' in a failed coup attempt. ``He wants absolute power. People like me have to do something before we lose all our rights, and our country.''

                                    © 2002 The Miami Herald