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.”