In the South Florida enclaves crowded with Venezuelans who fled President Hugo Chávez’s regime, his death Tuesday afternoon prompted spontaneous gatherings in familiar places. Local politicians weighed in offering predictions. And television and radio stations ramped up their news coverage, in what could be a preview of how Miami reacts to the eventual death of Fidel Castro.
News crews broadcast live from Doral, the South Florida city home to the largest number of Venezuelans. A celebratory mood spread at El Arepazo 2, a popular Venezuelan family restaurant, where more than 300 people gathered.
At El Arepazo 1, also in Doral, Venezuelans waved flags and cheered “ Venezuela presente” — Venezuela is present. Some men sat outside playing dominoes. Others danced joropo, a traditional Venezuelan dance. No one seemed to mind having to wait an hour for an arepa.
It was a far different gathering than the one five months ago, when somber crowds filled with supporters of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski watched presidential election returns showing a victorious Chávez.
“We are not celebrating someone’s death,” Mary LaBarca, whose grandmother was dancing outside the restaurant, said in Spanish. “We are celebrating freedom.”
Doral Mayor Luigi Boria, Florida’s first Venezuelan-born mayor, called for unity in his native country. More than 47,000 Venezuelans live in Miami-Dade County, according to the 2010 Census.
A robust crowd spilled into the street at a another restaurant, also named El Arepazo 2, in Weston, the South Florida city with the second-highest concentration of Venezuelans.
The eatery, inside a strip plaza off Weston Road, began filling up with customers, some of them women with baby strollers, others men drinking Polar beer — a Venezuelan brand. A TV news crew conducted interviews. Later, the crowd spilled out into the street.
Daniela Calzadilla and her sister, Corina, toasted Chávez’s death with Polar beer in styrofoam cups. The women hoisted a small Venezuelan flag.
“We hope this is the path to return our democracy and that hopefully we can have the same country we once had,” said Daniela Calzadilla, who moved from Caracas five years ago. She left because crime in the Venezuelan capital skyrocketed under Chávez’s leadership, she said, and career opportunities dwindled.
Corina Calzadilla, who moved to Weston a decade ago, said she felt bad for Chávez’s children. “The death of a parent is painful,” she said.
The sisters said they plan to return to Venezuela to vote in new presidential elections.
Shortly after Chávez’s death was announced, Spanish-language radio talk stations interrupted their regular programming and began non-stop coverage. Local TV stations in both English and Spanish devoted most of their evening broadcasts to the news, with some extending special coverage into the night.
Politicians reacted swiftly as well, with U.S. senators and members of Congress issuing statements and Florida state lawmakers commenting on Twitter.
“It is my sincere hope that Venezuela’s leaders will seek to rebuild our once strong friendship based on shared democratic and free-enterprise principles,’’ U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said in a statement.