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Welcome to 'Westonzuela'

Ernesto Ackerman runs a low-cost medical clinic for poor Venezuelans in "Doralzuela," the nickname for the city of Doral, Fla., near Miami.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: There's a growing community of Latinos down in South Florida. They're upwardly mobile, wealthy and well-educated. They've been forced to leave their country by a leftist leader. And they're not Cubans. Venezuelans disillusioned with the rule of Hugo Chavez have transformed several Florida cities. From the Americas Desk at WLRN, Marketplace's Dan Grech reports.


Dan Grech: Every Wednesday morning, the Latino business elite gather at Rick Case Honda, off I-75 in the town of Weston. They drink Venezuelan coffee, chat about their investments and ignore several requests to simmer down.

This Wednesday, more than 70 people show up. Gabriel Dardik's one of them.

Gabriel Dardik: I am a financial advisor with Prudential Financial.

Dardik left Caracas seven years ago and moved to Weston, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. This town of 70,000 feels like a country club. Giant palms and majestic oaks shroud its winding streets. The public jogging path is wide enough to accommodate a golf cart. It boasts two country clubs, several elite schools and the lowest poverty rate in the U.S. for a city of its size.

Dardik says it was love at first sight:

Dardik: We just came with another couple friends and both of us, we bought houses here. We felt at home from the first minute.

Thousands of other Venezuelans have been similarly enamored. That influx has earned the town a nearly 50 percent Hispanic population and a nickname.

Dardik:"Westonzuela." Weston equals Venezuela.

Weston has half a dozen Venezuelan bakeries and cafes. Arepas and fresh cheese are sold in gas stations.

Even Venezuela's obsession with beauty survived the journey. The Katty Pulido beauty school in Weston trains 120 girls as young as five. In four years, it already boasts a Miss Venezuela and a Miss Universe. Another Weston girl is a favorite in the current Miss Venezuela competition.

But it's not the only clinic serving Venezuelan immigrants in South Florida. A half hour south in the town of Doral, Ernesto Ackerman helps run a low-cost medical clinic for struggling Venezuelans.

Ernesto Ackerman: There is a guy that sells cheese, and he had a very bad thrombosis. He was almost dead. He was helped here and he's alive and selling cheese. And it's the best cheese in town.

The clinic has no money. Ackerman and other board members spend 500 bucks a month to keep the place going. He says the class divisions that so deeply divide Venezuelans back home also split Venezuelan Americans here.

Ackerman: People know that this clinic is struggling, but we don't get help.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has branded these immigrants oligarchs.

Carlos Fernandez was once Venezuela's largest distributor of cement and president of the national chamber of commerce. Then he helped organize a two-month general strike against Chavez in 2002.

Now, Fernandez lives in Weston, awaiting a verdict on his asylum petition. He says he lost a construction empire worth $5 million.

Carlos Fernandez: Today I feel minimized, isolated, like I've lost the society that once surrounded me. I started at the bottom and climbed to the top. Now I'm back to the bottom.

Fernandez sits at a Don Pan, a Venezuelan bakery chain with a store in Weston.Smooth jazz plays over the loudspeakers, and CNN is on the TV.

Don Pan's owner, Manuel Oliver, admits it's a compromise to attract more non-Hispanic customers. You can't escape change here, he says, any more than you can in Venezuela.

In Weston, I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.

SLIDE SHOW: Venezuela North

To learn more about or contribute to the Venezuelan American Brotherhood Clinic in Doral, call (305) 594-6505 or mail to Clinica Venamher, 2794 NW 79th Ave., Doral, FL 33122

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