DORAL, Fla. (AP) – Venezuelans in the U.S. cheered and expressed cautious optimism that new elections will bring change to their homeland after the death of President Hugo Chavez.
“My hope is that Venezuela will become a free country once again,” said Elizabeth Gonazalez, 52, who wore a smiley face sticker on her sweater with the words, “Venezuela without Chavez.”
A jubilant celebration broke out in the Miami suburb of Doral late Tuesday after word spread of the death of the 58-year-old leftist. Many dressed in caps and T-shirts in Venezuela’s colors of yellow, blue and red.
“He’s gone!” dozens in the largely anti-Chavez community chanted.
Chavez, though cancer-stricken in recent years, had led the oil-rich Latin American nation for nearly 14 years while espousing a fiery brand of socialism and bickering with a succession of U.S. governments over what he called Washington’s hegemony in the region. Venezuela’s foreign minister said Vice President Nicolas Maduro would step in as interim president and elections would be called within 30 days.
Many in Florida’s large Venezuelan community and other such pockets around the U.S. are stridently anti-Chavez and had fled their home country in response to the policies his government instituted. An estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants live in the United States, according to U.S. Census figures.
In addition to Florida, there are sizable Venezuelan communities in Los Angeles and New York.
Doral has the largest concentration of Venezuelans living in the U.S. They transformed what was a quiet suburb near Miami’s airport into a bustling city affectionately known as “Doralzuela.”
The restaurant El Arepazo is at the heart of the community and hundreds of Venezuelans gathered at its tables to watch news broadcasts of the death coverage while getting their fill of corn flour patties called arepas.
A large number of professionals and others left their country beginning after Chavez became president in 1999. Many did not agree with his socialist government, became frightened of soaring crime or simply sought better fortunes abroad.
“This is a relief, frankly,” said Maria Teresa van der Ree, 81, president and founder of the Civil Resistance of Venezuelans Abroad, a non-profit group. “We could not live with this any longer.”
Van der Ree, who now lives in New Haven, Conn., said she has not been in Venezuela since 2001. She has two sisters still living there.
“I hope now I can go to Venezuela,” she said.
At Mil Jugos restaurant in downtown Santa Ana, in Southern California’s Orange County, the Briceno family rejoiced. Daughter Norah Briceno left her country 14 years ago after struggling economically under Chavez despite a master’s degree in finance and a popular restaurant. She sold her business to a friend and opened an identical restaurant in California.
“When Chavez won, if you weren’t with the Chavez revolution, you were out and you barely had enough money to eat,” she said. “Finally, he’s died. He’s the reason we had to leave home and we’re all here.”
Her mother, Solange Briceno, is nervous about her son who remains with his family in Venezuela. The 73-year-old called him Tuesday in between serving customers steaming cachapas _ Venezuelan sweet corn pancakes.
“I am very worried,” she said.
In Washington, President Barack Obama said in statement the Chavez’s death marks a challenging time for Venezuela. He said the U.S. is committed to promoting democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law.
Chavez’s inner circle has long claimed the U.S. government was behind a failed a 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently played the anti-American card to stir up support.
Others, meanwhile, mourned Chavez’s death.
Former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II recalled that Chavez and the people of Venezuela donated 200 million gallons of heating oil to Citizens Energy, which distributes oil to lower income families in 25 states and Washington, D.C.
Kennedy, who heads Citizens Energy, said Chavez cared about the poor. A nephew of President John F. Kennedy, he said his prayers go out to Chavez’s family and the Venezuelan people.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus in Santa Ana, Calif., Claudia Torrens in New York and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.
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