The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 6, 2013

Chavez death: Venezuelans in US hopeful of change

(Continued)

One of them is Marcel Mata, a 28-year-old opponent of Chavez, who now lives in New Orleans. He moved to the U.S. from Caracas, Venezuela, during a turbulent period in 2002 and said the prospects of an election were dizzying for opposition forces long unable to defeat the seemingly larger-than-life Chavez.

After 14 years of Chavez, Mata said: "It's hard to believe. There seemed to be no end in sight and now there's a sense of hope."

Mata said Maduro may not have the campaign allure of the charismatic Chavez, adding "there's no way anyone in his party can fill his shoes." But he said he is nervous about the transition no matter who wins, warning there could be trouble.

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 sought better fortunes abroad.

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 sells arepas, corn flour patties stuffed with fresh cheese and other fillings. Hundreds of Venezuelans gathered at its tables with family and friends, riveted to the news broadcasts from their country Tuesday.

An estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants live in the United States, according to U.S. Census figures. Besides Florida, there are sizable Venezuelan communities in Los Angeles and New York.

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.

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