- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

MIAMI — Carlos Salamanca fled Venezuela’s growing political turmoil in January with his wife, two teenage children and $7,000.

Two months into their journey to the United States, he and his wife are sleeping most nights in an old, worn Nissan.

Salamanca had no family or business contacts in the U.S. No property he’d purchased on a previous trip. No idea where the children might attend school.

“Once we started getting threats, we couldn’t take it anymore,” he said of the family’s last days in Venezuela.

Early waves of Venezuelan immigrants who fled after the late President Hugo Chavez and his socialist government came to power in 1999 came largely from the upper class. They had abundant savings and vacation homes in Miami to turn into permanent residences. These days, Miami’s large Venezuelan community is filled increasingly with those from the middle class.

They are small business owners like Salamanca. University students and professors who came to teach or attend school and decided not to return. Athletes like Valentina Rodriguez, a gymnast who arrived with her family in February and didn’t even have money for a bus ride from Miami International Airport.

All had the means to obtain visas and travel to the United States. But they are arriving with a financial cushion that is considerably less secure.

“Before people would come, study and go back,” said Manuel Gomez, a law professor at Florida International University. “And people weren’t willing to sacrifice their social and professional status for a lesser life. People wouldn’t be willing to live in a small condo and share a car, whereas now it seems that people are willing to do that.”

The contrast has come to the fore in recent weeks as protests erupted throughout Venezuela over a long-brooding list of woes: Food shortages, soaring inflation, and a heavy-handed government that has shut off spaces for dissent. At least 18 people have been killed.

Immigration attorneys who work in Miami’s Venezuelan community said they have been flooded with inquiries from families seeking political asylum or wanting to find a way to try and get their relatives out. Most are middle-class families with limited finances.

“In the last two weeks I’m seeing an enormous uptick,” said Stephanie Green, a Coral Gables attorney who specializes in asylum.

Venezuelans have immigrated to the U.S. in several notable waves. Some fled early during Chavez’s first presidency, and a second exodus occurred after the 2002-03 oil strike, during which Chavez axed 18,000 workers, from mechanics to executives, from the state oil company. There are now almost a quarter million Venezuelans in the U.S., nearly half of them in Florida.

The largest concentration resides in the Miami suburb of Doral, where businesses, luxury condos and gated communities sprung up to cater to the growing Venezuelan community.

The violence and demonstrations in Venezuela over the past three weeks hasn’t yet provoked a new surge in migration to Miami, but those who are coming reflect the shifting demographic of Venezuelans choosing to start over in a foreign country and the deteriorating conditions they are fleeing.

Francisco Angulo, a broker and the residential president for the Miami Association of Realtors, said the first Venezuelans to settle in Miami after Chavez purchased homes with extra, disposable funds. In the past four years, however, more are buying with money from whatever they could sell before leaving Venezuela.

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