Felipe Lobón’s parents had long planned to move to South Florida from Caracas. But their plans accelerated in early 2003, when a prolonged work stoppage protesting President Hugo Chávez paralyzed Venezuela.
By February, Lobón, then 13, and his family had picked up and left, concerned about high crime and political and economic instability. They moved to a furnished Fort Lauderdale apartment — owned by his grandparents as a vacation home.
“It was pretty much, ‘Let’s get this done before something really bad goes down,’” said Lobón, now a 24-year-old graphic designer. “We figured out how to get the rest of our stuff here later.”
The story was much the same for thousands of other Venezuelans who settled in Miami-Dade and Broward counties during the 14-year rule of Chávez, whose death was announced Tuesday. Many Venezuelans relocated to South Florida, particularly to Doral and Weston, thinking it would be on a temporary basis, but they ended up staying.
They were practically all staunch Chávez opponents, results for election after election showed (Venezuelans living outside the country can still vote, and did so, overwhelmingly, for his challengers). Their reaction to Chávez’s death — publicly waving flags and honking car horns in celebration — was strikingly different from the widespread mourning in Venezuela.
South Florida and Venezuela, less than a four-hour flight away, have long had close business, trade and tourism ties. But it wasn’t until after Chávez came into power in 1999 that the Venezuelan population in the region boomed, more than doubling in Miami-Dade and Broward counties from 2000 to 2010.
“We’ve seen this slow-motion repetition of what happened in Cuba when [Fidel] Castro exported an entire middle class,” said Jerry Haar, a professor of international business, associate dean and director of the Pino Entrepreneurship Center at Florida International University.
“That was in different waves,” Haar said of Cuban exiles. “With regards to the Venezuelans, it’s been a continuous flow” since Chávez was elected.
U.S. Census figures show that about 30,400 Venezuelans lived in South Florida in 2000, a year after Chávez came into power — about 21,600 in Miami-Dade and 8,800 in Broward. By 2010, the total number had ballooned to about 70,000 — 47,000 in Miami-Dade and 23,000 in Broward.
Of course, the history of Venezuelans in diverse South Florida began decades earlier. And it has had much to do with oil, which has defined the politics, economics and culture of Venezuelans’ homeland for decades as well as their relationship with the Miami area.
What really put South Florida on the map for oil-rich Venezuelans was the Middle East oil embargo in 1973, which caused world oil prices to quadruple from 1972 to 1974.
The oil boom was on, and business and commerce between South Florida and Venezuela took off.
“I began working in international trade development in the late 1970s and even then, I would say the ties with Venezuela were the single most important factor, the driving force, in the development of South Florida as an international trade and business center,” said Manny Mencia, senior vice president for international trade and business development at Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency.