Amid the “uncertainty” under the on-again, off-again leadership of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an estimated tens of thousands of Venezuelans living in South Florida are buying homes, running businesses and investing in real estate.
Venezuelans top the list of commercial real estate buyers in Florida compared to other foreign nationals, according to one recent study.
And since Chavez took office, Venezuelans’ hunger for Florida property has grown. The number of Venezuelan-born residents in Broward and Palm Beach counties more than doubled between 2000 and 2011, according to the U.S. Census. Just a year after Chavez first entered office in 1999, there were an estimated 12,034 Venezuelan-born people in Broward and Palm Beach counties. In 2011, there were about 24,634.
In the Fort Lauderdale region, for example, Venezuelans were among the top three international homebuyers in 2012.
Ramon Peraza is one of them.
It’ll be a decade this year since Peraza, an electrical engineer in Venezuela, began to reinvent himself by moving his family to Weston and investing his money in opening Cafe Canela, a restaurant on the Sunrise/Weston border.
The 57-year-old father of three has celebrated one son graduating college, welcomed another into the family business and has a daughter studying at Florida International University.
“Once you’re established here you get used to the sense of security,” Peraza said. “In Venezuela, life is worth very little, it’s a Russian Roulette.”
Venezuelans feel they have a greater sense of investment security in the U.S. than in their native country, said Ernesto Ackerman, president of Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens. They don’t fear their business will be taken away by the government, as can be the case in Venezuela, he said.
Statewide, Venezuelans accounted for 7 percent of homebuyers, and most of them are spending big: The median price of homes bought was between $200,000 and $299,999. At least 20 percent of them bought homes valued above $500,000.
In a breakdown of the type of property international homebuyers acquired in Florida — commercial, condo/apartment, detached single-family, townhouse or other — about 16 percent of properties bought by Venezuelans were commercial, according the National Association of Realtors. That’s compared to Western Europeans 6 percent (except U.K.) and 6 percent other Latin American nationalities, Brazilians 5 percent and Canadian’s 2 percent.
The data from the association do not break down the location of the 16 percent. However, Canadians topped the list at 34 percent, followed by Brazilians at 14 percent and Venezuelans at 11 percent.
In Palm Beach, Venezuelans represented 5 percent of homebuyers in 2012, with Canadians buying the greatest share at 38 percent.
While some of the Venezuelans opening businesses in South Florida are like Peraza who settle here, others remain business owners in Venezuela, said Luis David Ramirez, president of the Coral Gables-based Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce of the United States.
They seek an alternative income in the U.S. because of “the uncertainty of what will happen with their businesses in Venezuela,” he said.
“The aim is creating a sustainable economic source in the U.S.,” Ramirez said.
Even if Chavez is out of office, the Venezuelan effect on South Florida will be lasting, Ackerman said.
“I think they will keep businesses here,” Ackerman said. “What you can see some people doing is go back to Venezuela, try to re-establish businesses and come back to the U.S. until the situation in Venezuela gets better, and it will take many years.”