MIAMI A surge in the number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States has some drawing parallels with Communist Cuba in the early 1960s.
As populist President Hugo Chavez tightens his grip on the oil-producing country, wealthy and middle class citizens are fleeing, just as their counterparts did soon after Fidel Castro seized power in Havana more than 40 years ago.
In 1998, the year Chavez was first elected, just 14 Venezuelans were granted U.S. asylum. That number jumped to 1,086 in the 12 months ending September 30, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Venezuelans seeking asylum are just a small part of a big exodus, according to Venezuelan activists in Florida, who say some 160,000 Venezuelans are living in the United States illegally or on overstayed visas.
Critics of Chavez say that could mushroom as the Venezuelan leader, who dismisses his critics as "terrorists" and "fascists," pursues his vision of a 21st Century socialist revolution.
"I have no doubt that the middle class and those with some stake in the old Venezuela have legitimate concerns regarding their future livelihood and in some cases safety as the regime hardens and the state moves into every sphere of economic and social activity," said Riordan Roett, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.
"If you have young children, you want out. If you have assets that have been seized, or may be seized, you want out as quickly as possible," Roett added. "If you have land that will be expropriated, leave sooner than later. As the alta (upper) bourgeoisie becomes more and more of a target, you want to leave before Hugo Chavez shuts the door."
The number of U.S. asylum grants put Venezuela in 11th place, well behind nations such as its neighbor, Colombia, and deeply impoverished Haiti. But more Venezuelans were granted asylum last year than were natives of trouble spots like Iraq, a country reeling from nightmarish levels of violence.
Asylum is granted by the United States to people who are unable to return to their homeland because of credible fears of persecution. Cases may be filed by individuals or families.
The high rate of approval for Venezuelan asylum applicants has angered the Chavez government and those who see it as a back-handed stab by Washington at his socialist policies and defiant anti-Americanism. Venezuela today is not a despotic state, and granting Venezuelans asylum is a way to embarrass its government, they say.
The anger is compounded by the fact that vigorously anti-Castro Cuban American lawmakers from Florida have become prominent supporters of anti-Chavez Venezuelan exiles and staunch critics of Chavez because of his close ties to Cuba.
"The United States has politicized the sacrosanct principle of political asylum," Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to Washington, told Reuters in a recent interview. "There is no political persecution in Venezuela."
Critics disagree, however, saying asylum seekers are legitimately protesting a president who was acting like a dictator and leading Venezuela toward Cuban-style communism and forcing them to seek refuge abroad.
"Nobody takes the trouble of emigrating to another country because they're OK back home," said Chavez opponent Carlos Fernandez, who was detained in Venezuela in February 2003.
"The fact that there are so many Venezuelans coming here and seeking protection clearly demonstrates the persecution."
Fernandez, 57, was charged with civil rebellion and treason for spearheading a December 2002-January 2003 strike against Chavez that battered Venezuela's economy.
A trucking executive, he headed the country's Fedecamaras business chamber before fleeing to the United States and his current home in the upscale Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston, known locally as "Westonzuela."
Horacio Medina, 54, was a leader of Venezuela's oil workers' union before fleeing the country in December 2004, in the face of what he says were death threats and an arbitrary arrest order for his prominent role in the two-month strike.
He too is in Weston and said he is one of thousands of former employees of the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela now working abroad from Alberta, Canada, to Argentina.
"Chavez accused us all of being terrorists," said Medina.
"I'm capable of doing whatever I have to, as long as it's dignified and something clean," said Medina, who noted that his jobs since he left Venezuela had included everything from home inspection to pizza delivery.
"I would never agree to work for a government like Chavez's," he said.