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The story behind the smile

Student flees Chavez-led Venezuela, finds success at USF

Published: Monday, February 20, 2012

Updated: Monday, February 20, 2012 11:02



Andrea Rodriguez is a middle blocker for the USF volleyball team, Venezuelan emigrant and a USF promotional model.

Most of Tampa has seen her smile.

It's plastered on the "USF is Tampa Bay" billboard on Fowler Avenue that approximately 18,000 people view per week. It's on many of USF's promotional materials and fact sheets.

But Andrea Carolina Gomez Rodriguez, a sophomore majoring in mass communications and a middle blocker for the USF women's volleyball team, hasn't always had a lot to smile about.

In 2002, when Rodriguez was in the fifth grade, her family fled from Venezuela amidst political strife.

Rodriguez's father, Julio, was part of a movement against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — a position that put his family in danger.

"My dad was involved with a coup to try to overthrow the government and (Chavez) tried to do bad stuff to us, so we kind of escaped," she said. "We're here in (the U.S.) under political asylum."

Her father was in the Venezuelan military, and Rodriguez said he would speak in public areas about the people's right to democracy.

"(He) would use microphones and talk about how the government needs to change and people need to vote and register to vote and take action and not let things happen that they know aren't right," she said. "They would encourage people to take action and talk to the media about anything that didn't seem right if they had the opportunity."

According to the U.S. Department of State, Chavez came into the public eye as the leader of a failed coup in 1992. He won the presidential election in 1998 and has been in power ever since.

In April 2002, between 400,000 and 600,000 people took part in a march in downtown Caracas to ask the president to resign, according to the Department of State. Gunfire broke out, resulting in 18 deaths and more than 100 injuries on each side. Military officers then took Chavez into custody and Pedro Carmona swore himself in as president. This coup lasted for only two days, however, after which Chavez returned to power.

Rodriguez remembers living in fear.

Chavez put ads in local newspapers asking for her father's body in return for 50 million bolivares, she said. Her mom was fired from her job as a lawyer for being married to him.

Before her family left the country, members of the Venezuelan military intelligence agency, Direccion de Inteligencia Militar (DIM), were stationed outside the family's condo with guns, instructed to kidnap anyone they saw leaving.

"It was crazy because everyone had to crawl inside my own house so they couldn't see anyone through our huge window," she said. "It was a brand new condo we had moved to and we didn't have curtains yet. And we didn't do anything bad. All we did was try to have freedom of speech."

One day, while the family was hiding in a friend's condo, the DIM broke into their condo and raped the family's maid, hoping to get information on their whereabouts. The maid was kidnapped and returned to the condo a few days later.

"She was like me and my sister's best friend," Rodriguez said. "This was heartbreaking. All these memories are extremely vivid. It is impossible to not remember.

The hardest part of the family's move to northeast Virginia in 2002, she said, was learning the language. Rodriguez barely spoke any English.

"I knew how to say ‘yes' and ‘no,'" she said. "My English teacher in Venezuela taught me to say ‘How old are you?' but she taught me wrong. So I would go up to people and ask them, ‘How many years do you have?'"

Rodriguez started school a few weeks after her move to Virginia, but wasn't comfortable speaking English until three years later in the eighth grade. She only considered herself fluent by ninth.

The mass communications major now speaks near-perfect English with little trace of an accent.

Rodriguez's parents were lawyers in Venezuela, but had to change careers after moving because of a difference in legal regulations.

Her father opened a used car dealership in Virginia, but the economic recession caused him to lose his business. Her parents decided to move to Miami in 2009, where her father is now working with a group of friends to create a university called "University of Florida Tech," where students would learn to become computer game designers. Her mother, Maruja, works as a salesperson for Nikken, a company which sells health products.

They are now in the process of applying for citizenship.

"(My parents) had to think of something else, so we decided to move to Miami because they had more opportunity to work because of the language," Rodriguez said. "They didn't speak English that well."

That year, when Rodriguez was a senior at Ronald Reagan High School, she began playing volleyball.

Rodriguez said she grew up knowing that if she wanted to be an athlete, volleyball was the ideal sport to play since it is the most popular women's sport in Venezuela.

Her favorite part of the sport, she said, is the inter-team dynamic.

"What I really like about (volleyball) is communication, ironically, because that's what I struggled with in terms of language," she said. "It's all about communication and working with people, and I'm a very social person so I just love it."

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Sat Dec 8 2012 20:02
Julio Rodriguez is a freaking hero for the Venezuelan community. Hugo Chavez has killed thousands and thousands of people and all of his crazy tactics are all over the media. Look Chavez up online. Americans have NOTHING nice to say about him, let alone Venezuelans that have to deal with his poor governing skills. He is a murderer and a criminal that is helping the most with all the drug trafficking, making millions from petroleum supply, and yet he still manages to keep the people in Venezuela poor. why is one of the richest countries in the world so poor? Clearly he doesn't know what he is doing. And what about him shutting down news stations in Venezuela because they were reporting the truth? If a president was doing nothing wrong, they why would he shut down the media? If he has nothing to hide huh? look it up bro. Chavez is crazy, and Rodriguez is one of the few brave ones out there pat put his and clearly his family's life on the line in order to help his country have a real democratic chance to liberty. If Chavez was a good president, there wouldn't be so much violence in Venezuela and people wouldn't be scared to live a normal life over there. Its so sad...
Tue Feb 21 2012 19:17
Tue Feb 21 2012 17:50
President Hugo Chavez has been democratically elected 3 times in elections certified by international observers. I don't understand why you would call someone who disagrees with you a hippie. It is an ad hominem reasoning fallacy and detracts from your argument.
Mon Feb 20 2012 17:56
"Democratically elected President Chavez" -- Did you gloss over that part where Uggo tried to overthrow his own government? Google "Operation Zamora"...hippie...
Mon Feb 20 2012 11:45
Who cares !!!
Mon Feb 20 2012 09:17
One would think that the "right to democracy" does not equate to a military coup. Can you imagine what would happen to someone in the U.S. if they tried to overthrow the President with the help of a foreign country?
Mon Feb 20 2012 06:35
Julio Rodriguez was one of the mutinous military thugs who participated in the 2002 coup against democracy in Venezuela. He was personally involved in the attempt to pressure the democratically elected President Chavez to resign in favour of the right-wing dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona, who attempted to abolish all of Venezuela's democratic institutions.

It's shameful to see this anti-democratic right-wing criminal portrayed as some kind of freedom fighter in this one sided puff piece for his daughter but I guess full backing for Latin American fascists is entirely the norm in Florida.

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