For years, college student Alexandra Perez had been dreaming for an end to what she called Hugo Chávez's tyrannical rule in Venezuela.
“The fact that Chavez died fills us with this hope, which makes us celebrate and get together and just talk about what the possibilities for the future could be,” said Perez, 20, a student at the University of Miami. “It’s all hope.”
Perez, who grew up in Miami but was born in Venezuela, pondered if she would ever return to her homeland now that the socialist leader is gone.
“I still have a lot of family in Venezuela, so I could either visit more often or maybe even live there for a year or two to get that important part of my culture back,” said Perez.
Thousands of Venezuelans who fled their country the past decade, many of them settling in Miami, are now in the same predicament – wondering if now with Chávez gone, they should return to Venezuela or remain in a country they have long been calling home.
A large number of professionals and others left their country beginning after Chavez became president in 1999. Many did not agree with his socialist policies, became frightened of soaring crime or sought better fortunes abroad. A
An estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants live in the United States, according to U.S. Census. Besides Florida, there are sizeable Venezuelan communities in Los Angeles and New York.
And while many are hopeful about Venezuela’s future, uncertainly remains a big concern. But many expatriates say even if things change in the South American country – though they doubt they will – they are too established in the U.S. to return.
“I have two teenagers who have lived here for five years already. They speak English and will be attending an American university. That’s the dream of any Venezuelan,” said Pedro Mendoza, a former Venezuelan politician who lives in Miami. “They are the future and I have to live in the present and that’s with my family.”
But he said there are circumstances where he would move back.
“The only reason I would go back is if someone calls me asking me for help to rebuild my country,” he said.
Mendoza is not the only expat who would consider returning.
Henry Lugo, 60, a former military general in Venezuela who has political asylum, said he too would consider going back to his homeland.
“I would return to Venezuela when, through legitimate and transparent elections, the totalitarian regime is defeated, to contribute in the saving of true democracy,” said Lugo. “I love my country and I would like to help restore the well-being of all my people.”
Venezuelans are currently waiting for the government to call presidential elections, which according to the constitution, should proceed within a month after Chavez's death -- meaning a new president should be in place by April 5th.
Whether Venezuelans stay in the U.S. or leave, many in the United States seem to agree on one thing: Change in the country is coming.
“[Chávez’s] death meant the end to a cycle of government and the beginning of a new one. It does not mean it’s a good new cycle,” said Jose Hernandez, 50, chief editor of the newspaper El Venezolano in Miami. “Venezuelans now have the chance to a positive change for their country. When Chavez was alive, change was tougher to achieve.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.