Pedro Mena jokes routinely to his children that he is going back to Venezuela. The answer is always the same: “Well, you’ll be going alone because we’re staying here.”
To many Venezuelans living in exile in South Florida, Tuesday’s announcement of the death of president Hugo Chávez has awakened new hope in the future of their native country. They celebrate the possibility of a transparent electoral process and advocate for democracy and the separation of powers.
Yet when asked if they would return to their country if there is a real transformation, many say that they can no longer imagine their own future in Venezuela. They have struggled to restart their careers in this country or have found new professions. They have adapted to the American culture. And their children have grown up here.
“I believe we are inexorably marked by exile,” said Vilma Petrash, who fled from Venezuela in 2004. “As exiles, we have grown roots in our new reality, and though we’ve been forced by circumstance, we ended up feeling love for this country that gave us the opportunity to live in freedom, democracy and the ability to raise our children in peace and with opportunities.”
Of course there are exceptions, such as José Antonio Colina, who heads the organization Venezuelans Politically Persecuted in Exile. Colina, a former officer in Venezuela’s National Guard, said that he would return immediately to his country if there is a change in political leadership and an autonomous judicial system.
“I have no intention to remain in the United States,” said Colina, who arrived in Miami in 2003. “I have never wanted to do anything that would bind me to this country. I consider myself in a transitional status.”
Colina has chosen not to marry. He has no children. He lives in a rented apartment. But he realizes that few have opted to live like him.
Alex Stepick, an anthropologist who has studied Miami’s immigrant communities for three decades, said that economics is one of the most important factors that keeps exiles in the United States.
“For those who have jobs, it’s usually an easy decision because almost always they have a job here and not a job waiting there,” said Stepick, a professor at Florida International University and at Portland State University. “Business folks are more likely to pick up again more easily back home. Many in fact have operated their businesses long distance with occasional visits to check on things [...] For them, a wait-and-see attitude is more likely.”
Before the presidential elections last year in Venezuela, the Miami chapter of the Democratic Unity Board surveyed Venezuelans in South Florida. They were asked if they would return to Venezuela if the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, defeated Chávez in the election.
Ninety-five percent said they would not return.
“It’s understandable because our children, our families, we ourselves have already assimilated to this country’s culture,” said Mena, who chairs the group’s Miami chapter. “We have made a big investment in time, in studies, and in labor to make it here. I think it would be very difficult, no matter how much you wanted to return to your country and start over there, because to return is to start over.”
Mena, for example, was once a national congressman in Venezuela. When he arrived in Miami 11 years ago, he delivered pizzas and painted houses while he waited for his work permit. He also went back to school to get a master’s degree.
“They have made their lives here and they have been successful in Miami,” said Eduardo Gamarra, political science professor at FIU. “They have given a new character to Miami.”
U.S. Census data shows that the Venezuelan community has higher educational and economic levels than most other Hispanic immigrant groups in South Florida. Venezuelans have also become one of the fastest-growing communities since Chávez took power in 1999. In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the Venezuelan population grew from 30,000 to more than 70,000 between 2000 and 2010.
Many Venezuelans have concentrated in Doral, which last year elected the state’s first Venezuelan mayor, Luigi Boria. On Wednesday, Boria said that he cannot imagine moving back to Venezuela after living in Florida for 23 years.
He said he’d like to go back to visit, but worries about security. Like many Venezuelans, Boria was robbed at gunpoint on the streets of Caracas in 2007. He hasn’t gone back.
“The society has been destroyed,” he said. “The social problem is a result of bad leadership.”
Gamarra said that improvements in security could encourage some Venezuelans living in Florida to return. He recalled how, during the 1990s, many Colombians moved to Miami to escape the violence associated with that country’s drug wars.
“But by the mid-2000s, many of them returned to Colombia because the economic and political conditions had improved,” he said, referring to policies under the administration of former president Alvaro Uribe.
In another comparison, Stepick remembered a similar feeling of hope for a democratic change among Haitian exiles after the fall of the Duvalier government.
“Most Haitian immigrants returned if they had the money and checked it out and then came to the conclusion that things hadn’t improved enough, that things were better in the United States,” he said.
Many Venezuelan exiles expressed gratitude for the opportunities they’ve received in the United States, while recognizing that their own journey was difficult.
Petrash had been a university professor in Venezuela. When she arrived in Miami in 2004, she taught at Miami Dade College and eventually became a television producer for América-Tevé on Channel 41. Recently she became the spokeswoman for the City of Doral, where she believes she can help others who arrive to Doral in search of opportunities.
“Going back is tough when your son is 20 and a university student,” Petrash said. “When your younger son is 14 and dreams of becoming a football star. When your children are already part of this country and when you have gone through that process of reinventing yourself.”
Lorenzo Di Stefano, who owns the restaurant El Arepazo 2 chain, said that he emigrated for his children and not for political reasons.
In 2000, Di Stefano’s family moved to Sarasota so that his small children could go to tennis academy.
“The original plan was to be in the United States a couple of years and then return to my country,” Di Stefano said. “But being here I began to see what was happening in Venezuela and that definitely allowed me to decide to stay.”
Then the family moved from Sarasota to Miami, where they soon adapted to “a very Latino atmosphere. I can assure that I feel very much at home here.”