South Florida Venezuelans Hopeful After Opposition's Landslide Victory

Much of South Florida's large Venezuelan community is celebrating Monday morning after Sunday's landslide victory for the country's opposition party, an historic move that holds the potential to tip the balance of power in their favor.

After nearly two decades of socialist rule, Venezuela's opposition won control of the National Assembly by a landslide, winning 99 of the incoming 167-seat legislature.

NBC News reports that as the election results came in, the streets of the Venezuelan capital of Caracas erupted with the sounds of cheering, fireworks and honking cars.

The sentiment was much the same at El Arepazo restaurant in Doral, where hundreds of Venezuelans gathered to watch the election results which came in shortly after midnight.

Donning Venezuelan flags, many cheered at the news and sung the Venezuelan national anthem in unison.

"I was crying like a baby," Venezuelan native Meybell Stipp told NBC 6. "Thank God, the whole of Venezuela won together."

Voter turnout was a stunning 74 percent, the highest for a parliamentary vote since compulsory voting ended in the 1990s. The defeat was the worst for the ruling "Chavismo" movement since founder, Hugo Chavez, assumed power in 1999.

Maduro publicly accepted defeat early Monday morning in a televised address, urging his supporters to peacefully accept the results and "re-evaluate many political aspects of the revolution."

Many blame Maduro's government for the nation's plunging currency, triple-digit inflation, and widespread shortages of basic goods.

Violent clashes between student protesters and pro-government forces last year led to the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The U.S.-educated Lopez was sentenced in September to 13 years and 9 months in prison for allegedly inciting riots. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience, and the United Nations as well as many other groups have urged Venezuela for his release.

A small group of those pro-government forces reportedly took to the streets of Caracas Sunday night, sipping champagne and burning red shirts - the color and attire of the revolution - in protest of the results.

Most, however, followed Maduro's lead in accepting the outcome of the elections.

With another 19 seats up for grabs, the opposition has the chance to secure the supermajority needed to challenge Maduro.

Members of South Florida's Venezuelan community tell NBC 6 that the possibility gives them "optimism and hope" that their countrymen will "have a different life now that there has a been a change."

Local politicians are also weighing in on the results. In a statement, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called on the Obama administration to "defend democracy and freedom of expression in Venezuela." Ros-Lehtinen pointed to reports of voting irregularities such as pressuring of voters at the precincts and intimidation of voters by armed groups.

"I call on the Administration to denounce the environment leading up to the elections and impose sanctions on those individuals that caused voting irregularities on election day, a dangerous atmosphere for opposition political parties, and a lopsided playing field," she said. "The continued assaults on democracy by the Maduro regime, such as the sentencing of Leopoldo and the assassination of Luis Manuel Diaz during the campaign, must be a catalyst to impose further sanctions on the regime officials who perpetrate these human rights abuses.”

"I am not sure it's too much of a big deal to affect the income of Venezuelans right now, it's still not a great situation in our country right now," Henry Lee Camejo said. "But it's a step in the right direction, hopefully this gives them a little peace of mind."

According to the Pew Research Center for Hispanic Trends, Venezuelans comprised the 13th largest population of persons with Hispanic origin living in the U.S. in 2013, the vast majority of whom are in South Florida.

Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties saw a 250 percent increase in residents with Venezuelan ancestry from 2000 to 2013, according to data. Many of them fleeing the country as the economic situation crumbled in the late 1990s with the election of Chavez.

Large concentrations of Venezuelans have settled in the suburban neighborhoods of Doral and Weston, data shows.

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