Venezuelans have woven themselves into the fabric of South Florida's business community for decades, but particularly over the tumultuous 14-year reign of President Hugo Chavez.
Venezuelans have been the No. 1 foreign buyers of Miami real estate, ahead of much larger nations like Argentina and Brazil, at least since 2006 when the Miami Association of Realtors began tracking foreign sales.
They have launched numerous small businesses in the region, ranging from restaurants to import-export firms, started families and put down roots. Their prominence has prompted the nickname of "Westonzuela'' for the city of Weston in Broward County. Doral, whose mayor hails from Venezuela, is often dubbed "Doralzuela.'' Some 47,000 Venezuelans live in Miami-Dade County.
Philip Spiegelman, principal of International Sales Group, told a roundtable in Miami last November that the leftist strongman's re-election had prompted his peers at the condominium marketing firm to jokingly anoint Chavez "Salesman of the Year."
With Chavez's death Tuesday, many South Floridians are pondering the ripple effect, especially in Miami, a region whose economy has long been shaped as much by international affairs as homeland events.
The answer, especially for the near term, is more of the same: Miami will remain a magnet for Venezuelan exiles and their money.
"I don't anticipate Chavez's death is going to have any major impact [on Venezuelans buying real estate in Miami],'' said Francisco Angulo, a native of Venezuela, and Coldwell Banker agent, who is residential president-elect for the Miami Association of Realtors and regional coordinator to South America for the National Association of Realtors. "Venezuelans -- even pre-Chavez -- were great partners with Florida and especially Miami.''
Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, managing director of Miami-based Cervera Real Estate, which markets new condominiums throughout Latin America, said the political and economic uncertainty in Venezuela over the near term could boost flight capital to Miami. And longer term, Miami will remain a mecca for Venezuelans. "Venezuelans didn't arrive here yesterday. It's already been generations and they are here to stay,'' said Cervera Lamadrid, who went to Venezuela last week and returned with 14 deals lined up.
If Venezuela should pivot toward a fiscally sound government and rebuild its economy over the longer term, that would prove even better for Miami, Cervera Lamadrid said. "Look at Brazil. A strong South America is good for Miami.''
South Florida's international financial community has deep Venezuelan roots: At least three South Florida banks -- Banesco USA, Mercantil Commercebank and Ocean Bank -- are controlled by Venezuelan investors.
Banesco USA, a state-chartered institution based in Coral Gables, was founded in 2006 by three individuals who have ties to Venezuela, and who also own Banesco Group banks in Venezuela, Panama, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
"The Venezuelan market has always been investing in the U.S., and they have been investing in the U.S. for many years, and they are going to keep investing and coming back and forth,'' said Rafael F. Saldana, president and chief executive of Banesco USA.
He doesn't expect a sudden increase in flight capital.
"We don't see a big change," said Saldana, who is Puerto Rican. "We are going to keep having the same level that we have had in the last few years," he said. "The influx of capital from Venezuela precedes the administration of President Chavez. It has been always going on. What we are seeing now is more business people establishing themselves in enclaves that are heavily Venezuelan, like Doral and Weston."
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