Venezuelans in South Florida woke up on Saturday to the first crack in the Venezuelan military’s loyalty to President Nicolás Maduro.
It was a video of Air Force General Francisco Yanez renouncing Maduro – the authoritarian leader widely condemned for trashing their homeland’s economy and democracy. Yanez insisted that “90 percent of the armed forces oppose Maduro,” and he called on other high-ranking officers to recognize National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president – as the U.S. and many other countries have.
Yanez’s defection capped an extraordinary two weeks of domestic and international pressure on Maduro, which has raised hopes that the socialist president may finally be forced from power. And it was why Venezuelan expats were feeling unusually festive Saturday evening as they gathered at City Place in Doral for a pro-democracy rally, an event coincided with large-scale anti-Maduro marches in Caracas and across Venezuela.
“Buenas tardes!” Belen Marrero, one of the Doral organizers, shouted from a stage as more than a thousand expats poured into the plaza. Marrero was born in Venezuela and was a popular telenovela actress there until the socialist regime “cut off my career when they found out I was opposed to the government,” she said. “They closed the door on me, shut down my email and Twitter accounts and made sure I’d never get a TV role again.”
In 2014 Marrero, now a life energy coach in Miami, joined the more than three million Venezuelans who’ve left their country in recent years. She became an opposition activist here in no small part because her father was a Cuban exile who died without seeing his native country freed from communism – a fate she said she doesn't want for herself.
“We are celebrating the resurrection of our forces to fight for our freedom,” Marrero said as a Venezuelan joropo band tuned up behind her. “Nobody believed in our fight because they said, ‘No, no, they are like Cuba, they lost the country.’ No. I have the memory of my father’s history, so I have in my heart all the time the strength to still fight.”
In front of the stage, Venezuelan-American restaurateur Robert Barany agreed that this moment is different.
“I’ve been living in the United States now for 20 years – and time and again I’ve been through these phases of expectations and then disappointment,” said Barany, who owns the Latin American restaurant Perinola in Doral. “And this is the first time that I really, really think we are on the brink of big change.”
Barany left Venezuela when Hugo Chávez and his socialist revolution came to power in 1999 because, he said, he could see dictatorial abuses on the horizon. And lately he’d begun to think his homeland was indeed lost to him.
“We were a very big family in Venezuela,” Barany said. “And seeing all that family losing their home – all of my family’s living all around the world now, my daughter has never been in Venezuela – it’s a very sad thing.”
But now that the U.S. and much of the international community have declared Maduro’s re-election constitutionally illegitimate, Barany feels buoyant. Cautiously buoyant.
“What all the people in this plaza need to realize right now is that this is going to take time, maybe months,” he said. “But this is going to be the break that we needed.”
Nearby, Luis Gomez was wearing a Venezuelan flag as a cape.
“I went to Venezuela this past December,” Gomez said, “and the people, the faces, the feeling – y’know, everyone was sad. Gray. No hope.
“But this has changed the whole ballgame,” he said. “Right now my dad is in Venezuela, and he says people there are hopeful again.”
Gomez, a civil engineer in Weston, was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and his parents brought him and his sister here more than a decade ago as kids.
“Under Chávez at that time, Venezuelan schools started brainwashing the kids” with political dogma, Gomez said. “My dad was fearful about that.”
But Gomez’s dad hasn’t abandoned Venezuela. He still has a cheese company there and returns regularly to check up on its operations. Gomez, who today is 25, said he’s looking forward to going back to help him run the firm – especially since opposition leader Guaidó, only 35 himself, promises to bring a younger, fresher leadership to the forefront.
“Guaidó has been doing things in a different manner,” Gomez said, “and so yeah, I would love to go back to live in Venezuela. When I’m there I’m happy. I’m in my zone of comfort – with my people.”
The situation, however, is more complicated for expats like Selene Jurado.
“I haven’t seen my parents since I came here seven years ago,” says Jurado, a 25-year-old paralegal in Miami Lakes whose mother and father, both in their 70s, sent her here to study seven years ago.
Two years ago they began to miss her and other expat family members so badly they joined anti-government marches in Caracas, hoping to help bring down Maduro. One day, Jurado said, they were almost killed when they got trapped between demonstrators and soldiers’ rifle shots. Since then they’ve moved to Spain.
“It’s hard to think about it,” Jurado said, fighting back tears. “I always told them not to go on those protest marches. But they said that if they didn’t do it, nobody was going to do it for me.”
Like most of the expats in City Place on Saturday, Jurado was heartened when Guaidó appeared on a large screen above the plaza addressing them personally.
“Saludos, Doral,” Guaidó said. “Be ready for democracy to return to power in Venezuela.”
Even if it may take time – perhaps months, as Barany said – for the regime’s cracks to grow large enough to make that happen.