In the Miami suburb of Doral, Venezuelans reacted with cautious optimism that there will be change in their native country after President Hugo Chavez's death.
Venezuelans watched on television as the country's vice president, Nicolas Maduro, announced Chavez had died Tuesday. At a popular restaurant, one person cheered at the news, but the rest watched quietly and refrained from any celebration.
Many Venezuelans came out to the streets and met in El Arepazo, a local Venezuelan restaurant in Doral.
Doral's mayor and police chief prepared a security and contingency plan in the event of Chavez's death. The suburb has the largest concentration of Venezuelans living in the U.S. Luigi Boria, the city's mayor, said 30 police officers were assigned to monitor reaction and would close some lanes of traffic if necessary.
"We have everything under control right now," he said.
There are nearly 190,000 Venezuelans in the United States. Many are strongly anti-Chavez.
"There had so may rumors lately but I didn't know it was true. It was confirmed by the media so we came to the hotspot here in Doral," said 18 year old Francisco Gamez.
He says he was overwhelmed with tweets and texts in the minutes after Chavez's death was reported.
"We're not celebrating the death of Hugo Chavez. We are celebrating the hope that the country has now. Not only do I expect to vote in the upcoming elections, but I hope that's what everyone is celebrating," said Gamez.
“No one should wish death upon one, but it was time for him to leave,” said Venezuelan Joann Jackson. “It’s the beginning of a trial for Venezuela in the moments and events that are to come- his supporters are not just going to give up.”
Juanita Martinez, who was at El Arepazo Tuesday, said her hopes are that Enrique Capriles can be the future Venezuelan president. As she spoke to family members on the phone, she was given the news that everyone in Venezuela was out in the streets.
“It’s sad to celebrate someone passing away, but you can’t control the feeling toward a man who has been there for 14 years,” said Martinez. “Some cry, some celebrate but with all respect, he (Chavez) destroyed a beautiful country.”
Hayat Peñalver arrived eight years ago from Venezuela and although she says one should not rejoice over someone’s death, she is happy.
“Venezuela deserved justice from a long time ago and that’s why I understand the happiness of many,” said Peñalver.
South Florida is home to more than 40,000 Venezuelans, according to the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce of the United States.
Doral is the heart of the community and affectionately known as "Doralzuela" because of their plethora of Venezuelan businesses catering to the community with authentic foods such as arepas and capachas.
A large number of professionals and business people left their country after Chavez became president in 1999, either because they did not agree with Chavez's socialist government or they became frightened by high numbers of killings and kidnappings — or simply to seek better economic fortunes in the U.S. Many still have relatives in Venezuela and travel back regularly to see family and do business.
In October, thousands traveled to New Orleans in order to vote in Venezuela's presidential election. Chavez closed the Miami Venezuelan consulate in 2012 after the State Department expelled consul Livia Acosta.
Raul Leoni, son of a former Venezuelan democratic president, also named Raul Leoni, arrived with skepticism, left with a sense of hope.
"The people can go freely to vote and express their opinion and choose if they want to live with what we have now or if they want to live with a better future for them and their children," said Leoni, whose father served as Venezuela's leader from 1965 to 1969.
Former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart told NBC 6 that this is not only an important moment for Venezuela, but it’s also a key moment for Cuba.
“It’s a big blow for Fidel Castro- Hugo Chavez was a puppet of Fidel Castro,” said Diaz-Balart who also stated that Venezuela feeds Cuba about $9 billion. “I hope the world insists on truly free elections, what I do know is that Fidel Castro and Raul Castro really need the Venezuelan regime because that’s their checkbook and source of power and they will try to make Maduro the new dictator. We have to insist in free elections.”
At Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, people congregated outside. Cars honked their horns as they passed outside.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Nelson's office also released this statement: "With the passing of Hugo Chavez, hopefully there will be a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela with real, meaningful democratic reforms."
Congressman Joe Garcia, who has introduced the Venezuelan Liberty Act, a bill that would grant permanent legal resident status to all Venezuelan immigrants who have fled Venezuela since Chavez rose to power in 1999, released this statement highlighting the new opportunities for Venezuela.
"If a new Venezuelan government embraces these principles then I am confident that its future will be a bright one,” said Garcia.
At the Miami International Airport on Tuesday night, Caracas resident Dennis Lopez was one of dozens of Venezuelan national arriving and hearing for the first time that Chavez had died.
"We need to change in Venezuela but I think right now it's not easily... change is not easy," Lopez said.
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