Global Politics

Venezuelans Getting Political in Florida

The city of Doral has a nickname: Doralezuela. Located next to Miami, the city of 45,000 is the heart of Venezuela's expat community.

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Most Venezuelans arrived here over the past 10 years. Ernesto Ackerman is sort of a dean of the community. He moved here from Caracas in 1989. He says Venezuelans here are politically engaged, just not with American politics.

Ackerman: "You ask the Venezuelans: 'What do you think about the candidates?' They will talk about the six candidates in Venezuela and they will give you the whole résumé of each one and what did he say a half hour ago. And then you tell them, 'OK that's good. But now let's talk about the candidates of the Republican party that are now in the primary.' They don't know."

Ackerman is the president of the Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens. Among other goals, his organization wants to get native Venezuelans here more engaged in local issues. It's a challenge. We met at the Venezuelan restaurant Arepazo Dos. During our discussion, the owner — Lorezno Di Stefano — came over.

Margolis: "Nice to meet you."

I told Di Stefano that I was working on a story about what Venezuelan-American voters are thinking about. He blurted out this answer.

Di Stefano: "We only need Chavez out. That's it."

That exasperates Ackerman.

Ackerman: "You see, you ask him about the presidency and they go straight to Chavez."

Ackerman says if Venezuelans want to get rid of Chavez, they need to vote him out. It's not up to American politicians.

Manuel Corao, a local radio host and columnist, says that's the reality of America's interests.

Corao: "The trade with Venezuela is very important for this country. We don't have many illusions they are going to change the political (policies) for Venezuela."

Last year, the US imported $40 billion dollars worth of stuff from Venezuela, mostly oil. Venezuela is our ninth largest trading partner in terms of imports.

Still, tough talk toward Hugo Chavez matters here. And the Republican presidential candidates know it. Mitt Romney has been chiding President Obama for being weak on Chavez.

Here's Newt Gingrich speaking last week in Miami.

Gingrich: "I think we need to say calmly and pleasantly to Chavez, we know who you are, we believe what you say, and therefore we regard you as a mortal enemy of the United States."

Gingrich also brought up the time President Obama was photographed smiling and shaking hands with Chavez three years ago. That image still galls some people down here.

I met Venezuelan-born Hector Pires at a Tea Party event.

Pires: "When you see a president, where we're supposed to be free, and shaking hands with a dictator, it tells me a lot."

But Obama's policy toward Venezuela and Latin America is pretty similar to that of his predecessors, Presidents Bush and Clinton, says Susan Kaufman Purcell. She directs the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. Purcell says Republicans, in general, have taken a more aggressive tone.

Purcell: "But look I don't think anyone believes that the United States wants to send military forces into Venezuela or overturn the government by force. I just don't think there's any appetite for that, and I'm not sure they think it's necessary."

Local columnist Manuel Corao put things another way. Here's what he says about American politicians and Venezuela.

Corao: "They talk, talk, but they don't do nothing."

Corao says Venezuelan-Americans are starting to wise up to politicians who come down to Florida and utter a few anti-Chavez lines. He says the community is slowly growing up.

They've elected two native Venezuelans to city council seats, including Luigi Boria in Doral. Boria says he wants to hear how the Republican presidential candidates will turn around the economy, not their stance on Venezuela.

Boria: "It's not that I don't love Venezuela, because I still remember where I grew up — and the food and the places that I visited when I was a child — and I love those places. But we have to now guide ourselves in where we are, no?"

Boria has been here 22 years. That makes him an old-timer for this community. He's built a business and raised children here.

For newer arrivals, though, their memories of Venezuela are still fresh. And they look toward American presidential candidates with one question in mind: How will they get rid of Hugo Chavez?