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.
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“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.
At Doggi’s, a Venezuelan fast-food restaurant in The Roads neighborhood of Miami, Nayana Nava took back-to-back calls on her cell phone. “Everyone is calling me, as if it were my birthday,” she said. “Thank God. Finally. We’re free.”
Nava, 39, is the Miami Beach coordinator for the Venezuelan opposition group Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, which in October mobilized bus loads of Venezuelan expats to New Orleans to vote in their country’s election after the Miami consulate was shut down. More than 20,000 Venezuelans from Florida, Georgia and North and South Carolina had been registered to vote in Miami, with more than 95 percent of those voters traditionally voting for the opposition.
Nava, who has lived in the United States for 17 years, said the group will be organizing another get-out-the-vote campaign in a matter of days for the election to replace Chávez.
In Key Biscayne, Antonio Braschi, owner of the Costa Med restaurant, said he began receiving calls from clients congratulating him on the news of Chávez’s death.
Braschi, who moved from Venezuela six years ago, said he was relieved when he heard the news but has mixed emotions about celebrating any death.
“Dictator or not, he was a person,” Braschi said.
The El Arepazo restaurants, sprinkled across South Florida, hosted the gatherings much like Versailles and La Carreta do for Cubans. Viva Cuba libre!
At an El Arepazo restaurant in Brickell, about 20 Venezuelans gathered, including co-workers from NBC Universal who printed out the Venezuelan flag when they heard of Chávez’s death.
“It’s going to be a big transition,” said Sofia Bustillos, a 30-year-old paralegal who left Venezuela in 2003 due to economic instability and insecurity. “Like all changes, it’s going to be painful and a learning experience for everybody. I believe the majority of the community here is relieved.”
Back in Weston, Betsy Grimaldo-Toro, a 47-year-old from Davie, played a cuatro — a small, four-stringed guitar — and her husband, 53-year-old Raúl Toro, shook maracas. At one point, they sang El Burrito Sabanero (The Donkey from the Plains), a Christmas carol.
Though he sang a happy tune, Toro said he does not have much hope that his home country will change.
“I don’t wish bad things for Venezuela,” he said. “But it will be very difficult for chavismo to leave.”
But Patricia Pesti, who said she moved to Weston from Venezuela a year ago, was a bit more optimistic. “We feel like it’s a new beginning,” she said. “We see a light for a better future far ahead, not tomorrow.”
At a nearby table, Oscar Pérez, 31, said he was celebrating “the birth of a new country.”
“There’s so much happiness,” said Pérez, who moved to Weston from Caracas the year Chávez took power. “We’ve been waiting 14 years. I’ve seen how he ruined the country. It’s anarchy.”
Pérez’s brother, Armando, 29, said his joy was tempered with concern about reaction among pro-Chávez supporters, known as chavistas, back home.
“This is the first step to big change,” he said. “I hope nothing bad happens, and that ignorant people don’t resort to violence.”
Pérez said he looks forward to new elections in Venezuela.
And though Chávez built a political base in Venezuela, Armando Pérez said he doesn’t believe the movement Chávez created will survive without its populist and charismatic leader.
“ Chavismo without Chavez doesn’t exist,” he said.
Carlos Marino, 63, watched TV with the Perezes. All three are car salesman for the nearby Rick Case dealership.
They broke into occasional song, including popular tunes Viva Venezuela and Yo Me Quedo en Venezuela (I’m Staying in Venezuela).
“I never wish anyone’s death,” Marino said, “but in this case I did. He poisoned the Caribbean.”
Marino lives in Miami Lakes. He moved to South Florida 15 year ago, he said, because he did not like Chávez. “I have a new life here,” he said, “but I always wish happiness and liberty for my people.”
Marino said the first person he called when hearing the news was his uncle in Margarita, an island off the northern coast of Venezuela. His uncle was screaming with joy, Marino said.
Miami Herald writers Paradise Afshar, Patricia Borns, Melissa Cáceres, Anthony Cave, Daniela Guzman, Carol Rosenberg, Andrea Torres, Christina Veiga and Andres Viglucci, and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Melissa Sánchez, contributed to this report.