Flush with oil wealth and overvalued bolivars that stretched its buying power, Venezuela imported container-loads of everything from auto parts, heavy machinery and electronics to champagne, corn flakes and frozen French fries.
It became South Florida’s perennial top trading partner. “For Venezuelans, Miami also became a huge shopping mall and real-estate bazaar,” said Manuel Lasaga, a Miami economist.
During the 1970s oil boom, Venezuelans developed expensive tastes — they loved imported goods and Miami shopping sprees.
It was the era of “ ’tá barato. Dáme dos” (“It’s cheap. Give me two”). Venezuelans crowded the aisles of Dadeland Mall and downtown Miami shopping gallerias carved out of old movie theaters. Flights between Miami and Caracas were almost like a shuttle service.
“The old joke was that when Venezuelans came to visit Miami, they took two hotel rooms — one for the family and the second for all the stuff they bought,” Mencia said.
Many began buying second homes in the new condominiums that were rising along Brickell Avenue and in Fort Lauderdale. Even the middle class began dreaming of owning a house or condo in South Florida.
“Back then, to come to Miami was the in thing,” said Nelson Peñalver, a businessman who arrived from Venezuela in 1981 to study English and never left. “I wanted to study and get a career going and my parents thought Miami was the best place to do it.”
But by the early 1980s, there were jitters in Venezuela. With a world oil glut, the growth in oil revenue began to slow. There were rumors about a currency devaluation, the country was too dependent on imports and the debt crisis had begun to grip Latin America.
Money pours in
There was a gush of flight capital from Venezuela — with Miami banks a big beneficiary.
The devaluation finally came in February 1983; another followed in December 1986.
Suddenly, Miami wasn’t so cheap and those condos weren’t within reach for many. Trade with South Florida and shopping took a hit.
Venezuelans started to vacation closer to home. Margarita Island off the Venezuelan coast became a favorite and even the names of some of the condo developments there, like Brickell Place, echoed Venezuelans’ love affair with Miami real estate.
Despite the turbulence, business ties with South Florida endured and investment followed flight capital.
With the second devaluation in 1986, more Venezuelan entrepreneurs began setting themselves up permanently in South Florida. Many did business with their homeland.
Those numbers have only gone up, and the strong business ties have become a selling point for the region, said Jaap Donath, senior vice president for research and strategic planning at the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade’s economic development agency.
“When we’ve talked to companies that are interested in Latin America, we say, ‘If you have to go to New York, it’s three hours. It’s three hours to Caracas, too,’ ” he said.
Since the Venezuelan presidential election last October, when Chávez was elected to another term, there has been an uptick of interest in investing in Florida, Mencia said.
And Venezuelans continue to visit Miami-Dade in droves. Last year, there were more than 379,000 overnight visitors from Venezuela — a 7.9 percent increase over 2011.