Venezuelans in South Florida gather to watch, await developments in Caracas

The Miami Herald

As news of a possible power shift in Venezuela spread through Miami — now home to tens of thousands of Venezuelan expatriates — residents gathered at traditional restaurants, coffee shops and the many places in South Florida that make up the public square for exile politics.

In Miami and the suburb of Doral, north to the city of Weston in Broward County, Venezuelans met to follow the news triggered early Tuesday as interim President Juan Guaidó said factions of the military were supporting his high-stakes push to oust Nicolás Maduro, whose leadership has precipitated an exodus from the South American country.

They waved the country’s yellow, blue and red flag; they sang songs; they released pent-up emotions that have grown stronger with time.

At the restaurant El Arepazo Original in Doral, Venezuelans draped in their country’s flag watched the potentially historic coup d’etat unfold on walls of flat-screen TVs.

Wilfredo Castillo, 25, arrived at the restaurant early with his mother, Ana, and brother Enrique to follow the news with their fellow Venzuelans. They had learned about the gathering on social media, and the news was cathartic.

“Anguish, anxiety, happiness, a lot of conflicting emotions,” Castillo said, describing the range of feelings he’d experienced this morning.

Castillo’s mother was feeling more optimistic.

“We have a lot of faith that it’s going to be accomplished today,” she said, referring to the change of leadership in Venezuela the family has long awaited.

The family arrived in Doral three months ago and said they hope to return to their country if Maduro is ousted.

On TV, newscasts showed parts of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, were shut down and people were streaming onto streets. There were reports of groups of anti-government protesters clashing with security forces — inspired by the unexpected release of a video by Guaidó early Tuesday that he said was recorded at the main air force base in Caracas.

Surrounded by heavily armed military forces and joined by Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition politician and former political prisoner, Guaidó said the time had come to peacefully force Maduro out of office under “Operation Liberty.”

In Miami, thousands of Venezuelans heeded the call from afar.

José Antonio Colina, a former Venezuelan military official and the president of Veppex, an advocacy group in South Florida that represents politically persecuted Venezuelans, said he was following the news closely on Tuesday morning.

“It’s been an important step,” he said. “Now we hope that this inspires a strong public response. The support of the people is needed.”

Otherwise, he said, Venezuela could be facing a bloody battle between pro- and anti-Maduro military forces.

Across Miami, Venezuelans anxiously glued to their TVs and smart phones said they hoped for a peaceful transition of power but were resigned that there may be bloodshed.

“I pray that this is the end, and that we don’t see too much violence,” said Gabriela Castillo, an attorney and vice president at Mercury Public Affairs.

Castillo said it’s hard for her to follow her regular routine with the news coming out of Caracas, her hometown. She’s stayed in constant contact with family and friends on the Venezuelan capital all morning.

“I have my flag ready to celebrate the end of a horrible time that made us lose the country we love,” she said.

People awoke up to the image of López, who had been under house arrest since 2014, appearing at Guaidó’s side on social media.

López’s release signaled a shift in loyalties from members of the country’s military, said one Venezuelan analyst.

“There has been a definite turn in the armed forces,” said Helena Poleo, an expatriate and commentator on Venezuelan affairs. “This is a moment Venezuelans everywhere have been waiting for.”

Poleo’s friends in Venezuela have told her the streets were quiet in cities outside Caracas early Tuesday, though information was starting to flow in WhatsApp chats and people were making plans to demonstrate.

“If people go out in the street and show their support, there is no way Maduro doesn’t fall,” she said.

For Ramón Rodríguez, a former Venezuelan mayor living in exile, watching the news unfold from El Arepazo in Doral was bittersweet.

“I would like to be present in my country, I would like to be doing what I’ve been doing for more than half my life,” he said.

That is, fighting for the end of the Maduro regime.

Rodriguez was the mayor of Bejuma, a town near Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, between 2013 and 2017. He said he received death threats and fled to Miami in 2018 after his term finished. Some of his colleagues weren’t as lucky, he said, and were killed or imprisoned.

“Today we’re living the results of a strategy, of a fight that has taken many years and in which we have had a lot of disadvantages,” he added. “We don’t have weapons, but we have a strong desire for democracy.”

Since moving to Miami to Venezuela, German Pérez Maza, 38, makes his living driving for Uber and Lyft. Today, he took the day off to follow the news in Venezuela.

“Miami is always united with Caracas,” he said. “I’m going to dedicate today to restoring democracy in Venezuela from Doral.”

Pérez said he’d been at El Arepazo since 6 a.m. when he first heard about the developments in Caracas.

“I feel very optimistic now that we have the support of the majority of the soldiers,” he said.

Seeing that political prisoner Leopoldo López Lopez had been freed, Perez added, “inspired more confidence in me” that the Maduro regime was ending.

As Perez spoke, Venezuelans at the restaurant broke into an impromptu performance of the national anthem. Guaidó supporters passed out blue arm bands signifying the resistance movement against Maduro. By 10 a.m., nearly everyone in the restaurant had tied one around their forearm.

Underlying the celebratory air, though, were feelings of empathetic pain and loss.

Igmar Mendoza used to have friends and family in Venezuela, but they’ve all left the country or been killed, she said. Most recently, one of her friends was gunned down by robbers trying to steal groceries amid widespread food shortages.

“We’re in the final phase of 20 years in which they’ve taken everything from us including our happiness,” she said.

Mendoza left Venezuela for Miami 20 years ago, but said she has continued to follow the news in her home country closely.

“My blood is my blood,” she explained.

Adanisa Almeida, who has lived in Miami for 11 years, said she’s been keeping in close touch with her sisters in Caracas all morning. Her relatives told her that they’d lost their internet connection and their phone line at home, but they were still able to send messages from their cellphones. They’d gone out into the streets to protest.

“There’s a lot of expectation and a little bit of fear,” in Caracas, Almeida said.

By 11 a.m., there was barely room to stand in the restaurant. A march of solidarity had been called for that time. The crowd broke into chants of “Guaido” and “Libertad” as scenes from the protests in Venezuela played on TV screens in the background.

Franklin Virgüez, a Venezuelan actor, wore his country’s flag wrapped around his neck like a scarf. He said he’d been awake since 1 a.m. following the news and at El Arepazo since 7 a.m.

“I’ve gotten to the point of crying, to the point of yelling, to the point of laughing,” he said, describing the roller coaster of emotions. The end of the Maduro regime, he added, felt like fate to him on Tuesday.

“It’s today or never,” he said.