- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

DORAL, Fla. — They call it “Plan B.”

As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tightens control of the South American country’s economy, wealthy Venezuelans who once thought they could live with his socialist edicts are turning to their backup plan — flight to the United States, particularly Florida.

Venezuelans have long gobbled up condos and preconstruction deals in Florida as investments, but the latest buyers want homes where they can live and business properties that will help them earn a green card.

“First the people who come are the businessmen in the highest circles, then the losing politicians, then the military and then the professionals,” said Miami immigration lawyer Oscar Levin. “You’re beginning to see the professionals.”

This latest and largest potential group of emigrants say they fear the effect Mr. Chavez’s socialist policies will have on the economy and on proposed educational reforms that could mirror the ideology of Mr. Chavez’s ally and mentor, Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

“There is so much insecurity, political insecurity, economic insecurity,” said Venezuelan Miguel Medina, a business executive who moved to Miami in August. “You don’t know if a contract you signed today will be honored by the government in the future. … It was time to do the ‘Plan B.’ ”

Mr. Medina said six family members visited him in the past two months seeking ways to relocate to the United States. Unlike previous cycles, those seeking to leave and bring their money to the United States are coming from all over Venezuela, not just from Caracas, said Mr. Medina, an account executive for ExpoCredit.

Between 2000 — a year after Mr. Chavez took office — and 2005, the number of Venezuelans living in the United States doubled to about 160,000, according to the latest Census Bureau numbers. Nearly half live in Florida.

But those numbers are deceptive.

In 2005, 10,645 Venezuelans received their green cards allowing them to live in the United States, almost doubling the 6,222 who received them in 2004, according to the latest Department of Homeland Security statistics. Another 400,000 Venezuelans came to the United States in 2005 on business and tourism visas. It is not known how many stayed.

Marbelia Font, 47, and her husband flew from Caracas to Miami in September to close on a newly built investment property. They thought their two daughters would enjoy the brief vacation.

But when two friends were fatally shot back home in Venezuela, Mrs. Font and her 13- and 8-year-old daughters stayed. Her husband returned to Venezuela, hoping to earn a visa by moving his manufacturing and construction business to the United States. Mr. Font said he has struggled to obtain necessary legal documents from the Chavez government.

Mrs. Font now lives in the half-furnished home they had planned to rent near Miami.

“It is so hard because the girls were very close to their father, and now they only see him once every three months,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ralph Gomez, who heads Tower Investments in Miami and has long specialized in real estate for South American clients, said he has received more than two dozen calls since the year began from people interested in coming to the United States. Other real estate agents report a similar spike.

Upper-class Venezuelans and their money flowed out of the country after Mr. Chavez was elected in 1998 and again when he quashed an attempted coup against his government in 2002, but many professionals hoped the climate would remain friendly to business.

Now, with 17 percent inflation pushing the bolivar to more than 4,000 per dollar on the black market, compared to the official rate of 2,150 bolivars per dollar, many Venezuelans are looking to move their businesses to the United States or to set up new ones here.

Those who can afford it often opt for business visas that require a minimum $500,000 investment in a company that creates jobs in an underdeveloped area of the United States.

About 33,000 Venezuelans received some kind of work visa to come to the United States in 2005 — nearly a quarter of all such visas for South Americans — compared to about 17,000 in 1999.

Those who come are received with open arms in Miami, where their money is welcome and the Cuban exile community views Mr. Chavez as the next Fidel Castro. As of 2004, Venezuelans tied with Germans and Canadians as the second-biggest group of foreigners purchasing homes in Florida, according to the National Association of Realtors. Only the British bought more Florida homes.

But moving to the United States, even for the wealthy, isn’t simple. Mr. Medina moved his family to the Miami three years ago, but it took him until last summer to obtain a visa and a job in Florida.

“I would travel back and forth when I could,” he said. “It was hard, but I know I am among the lucky ones.”

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