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From afar, a battle for their country

Alberto Marino owns a nice house in the suburbs, shuttles his son to child care, takes real estate classes.

And in his free time, he labors to bring down a leading political force of the Western Hemisphere.

Marino is mobilizing fellow Venezuelan immigrants, who will travel by bus, van, car and even bicycle to Miami's Orange Bowl on Sunday in hopes of voting President Hugo Chavez out of office.

Immigrants vote in their native country's elections all the time. But Venezuelan immigrants - from Central Pasco to Miami's fractured groups - have united in force for this one to take on the man they accuse of putting their country on a collision course with the United States.

"If Chavez gets re-elected, Venezuela will be very isolated," said Marino, who played a bit part in the failed coup against Chavez four years ago. As a former director of protocol in the presidential palace, Marino directed the swearing-in ceremony of the short-lived replacement government. When Chavez resumed power days later, Marino fled the country.

Marino, 37, now has political asylum and lives in Wesley Chapel, where he says so many professional Venezuelan immigrants have moved, it's now dubbed "Wesleyzuela." Their numbers will grow, he predicts, if Chavez wins.

Miguel Tinker-Salas, a professor of Latin American studies at Pomona College in southern California, says it's no surprise that Venezuelan immigrants are united against Chavez.

Many Venezuelans here were of the middle class or elite - a given considering the cost to emigrate from Venezuela and difficulty obtaining visas, he said.

Venezuela's wealthy and middle classes resent how Chavez is redirecting the country's oil wealth, said Tinker-Salas, who is from Venezuela.

"His use of oil revenues, seen in the past as the birthright of the middle class, now has been opened up for the broader population for education missions, health missions and food subsidies," he said.

Rather than isolating Venezuela, Chavez has broadened the country's trade ties, made it independent of U.S. control and overseen growth in the economy, Tinker-Salas said.

A poll by the Associated Press found that 59 percent of likely voters in Venezuela said they would vote for Chavez and the same percentage approved of his sometimes fiery handling of international relations. Much of his support comes from the poor.

But among immigrants, Chavez's behavior - like calling President Bush the devil during a speech at the United Nations - is embarrassing. (He's not the only one guilty of name-calling, says Tinker-Salas, who noted that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened Chavez to Adolf Hitler.)

"When (Chavez) speaks, he speaks like someone who doesn't have culture and education,'' said Marie Miot-Martinez. "When he talks, we feel the image that he's sending of the Venezuelan people is that we are ignorant."

Miot-Martinez, 51, is both a U.S. and Venezuelan citizen. She'll awake before dawn Sunday and leave her Land O'Lakes home to cast a vote against Chavez in Miami, where the Venezuelan Consulate is handling registration and voting for its residents from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

She left her homeland 14 years ago, but worries about the fate of her siblings and extended relatives. Some of them have lost jobs and report a growing political tension that pits family members against each other.

Some of Venezuela's trade relationships with people like Fidel Castro - including discounted oil sales - trouble immigrants, she said.

"We don't want another Cuba in Venezuela," she said.

Monipatry Sanchez, president of the Venezuelan Suncoast Association, said her group is trying to get members out to vote, no matter whom they support.

The 8-year-old association is nonpolitical and sponsors festivals and education funds among its 121 member families.

But she acknowledged that many have relocated here to escape problems back home.

"Now conditions are very difficult for them to live there due to political and social changes," Sanchez said.

Marino says some immigrants would welcome a U.S. intervention to remove Chavez. But he believes the best solution is the ballot box.

"The only way to take Chavez from power is through voting," he said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at (813) 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Venezuelans in Tampa Bay

According to the 2000 census, about 3,000 Venezuelan immigrants were living in Tampa Bay. However, the Venezuelan Suncoast Association estimates that between 10,000 and 15,000 now live in the area.

More than 18,000 Venezuelans are registered to vote with the Miami consulate, which helps Venezuelans living in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, according to the Miami Herald.

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