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Venezuelans in U.S. hopeful of change after Chavez's death

Updated 7:31 PM ET

DORAL, Fla. Many Venezuelans living in the U.S. celebrated and expressed optimism Tuesday that change would come to their homeland after the death of populist President Hugo Chavez.

Venezuelans watched on TV in suburban Miami as their country's vice president announced the 58-year-old leftist head of the oil-rich Latin American nation had died. Chavez, though cancer-stricken in recent years, had led Venezuela for more than 14 years, espousing his brand of socialism while battling what he called U.S. hegemony in the region.

Many in Florida's large Venezuelan community are stridently anti-Chavez.

At El Arepazo, a popular Venezuelan restaurant in the Miami suburb of Doral, one person cheered, but the rest watched quietly and refrained from any celebration. An hour later, people began arriving with Venezuelan flags, cheering and crying out joyfully. Beneath the jubilation, though, was worry about what happens next.

Though Chavez left a socialist movement in firm control in Venezuela, some question how new leadership will be formed there.

"Although we might all be united here celebration today, we don't know what the future holds," said Francisco Gamez, 18, who showed up at El Arepazo in a track suit adorned with the Venezuelan flag.

Doral has the largest concentration of Venezuelans living in the U.S. Luigi Boria, the city's mayor, said 30 police officers were assigned to monitor reaction and would close some lanes of traffic if necessary.

"We have everything under control right now," he said.

An estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants live in the United States, with 91,091 in the state of Florida, according to U.S. Census figures.

Doral is the heart of the community and affectionately known as "Doralzuela" because of their plethora of Venezuelan businesses catering to the community with authentic foods such as arepas and capachas.

A large number of professionals and business people left their country after Chavez became president in 1999, either because they did not agree with Chavez's socialist government or they became frightened by high numbers of killings and kidnappings — or simply to seek better economic fortunes in the U.S. Many still have relatives in Venezuela and travel back regularly to see family and do business.

In October, thousands traveled to New Orleans in order to vote in Venezuela's presidential election. Chavez closed the Miami Venezuelan consulate in 2012 after the State Department expelled consul Livia Acosta.

Mario Di Giovanni, a Venezuelan student activist in Miami who helped organize voters in October, said he was apprehensive but hopeful about Venezuela's future. "I always knew that for things to get better they had to get worse," he said. "So I guess this is the first step toward real change in Venezuela."

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