Weston resident Lourdes Maestres has been agonizing over the safety of her family in Venezuela, where anti-government protests broke out this month, leaving at least 15 dead and 150 injured.
On Tuesday, she was relieved to share a quiet family breakfast with her brother, his wife and their son at a café in Weston. The trio had fled the strife in the South American nation the night before, leaving behind fiery barricades and mourning their neighbor, a young beauty queen, killed in the protests.
"It was devastating, horrible," Maestres, 36, said. "That's why my family came; they're afraid."
In South Florida, home to the largest concentration of Venezuelans outside that country, many in the Venezuelan community see their role as raising awareness about the protests, which are being led by students fed up with human rights abuses, food shortages, crime and other pressing problems.
Nearly 85,000 people of Venezuelan heritage now live in South Florida, almost triple the number in 1999 when former President Hugo Chávez took office, the latest Census estimates show. Doral has the most, followed by Weston.
Since the protests began Feb. 4, many are spreading the news on social media, especially since Venezuela's government has shut down most private media in the country. And they've been gathering at restaurants and organizing rallies, including one in Doral on Saturday that attracted thousands.
There's still no certainty over what the future holds for Venezuela, a major oil supplier to the United States. The country of 30 million people remains roughly split between supporters and opponents of the socialist regime now led by President Nicolas Maduro, the protege of the late Chávez.
Maduro has blamed the United States for stoking the recent protests and expelled three U.S. diplomats. On Tuesday, Washington expelled three Venezuelan diplomats. U.S. officials cited concerns over human rights abuses and support for democracy in Venezuela as reasons for expelling the three.
"That's smart diplomacy," said lawyer Francisco Gonzalez, former president of the Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce in South Florida. He'd also like to see Washington address Venezuelan human right issues in such groups as the United Nations and Organization of American States.
For news about the protests, Venezuelan residents largely depend on social media.
"There's very little information on TV," said Maestres' visiting brother, Marco Caicedo, 34. "We find out about everything through Twitter and Facebook, and the videos and photos people send through [mobile messaging app] WhatsApp."
Locally, some Venezuelans stay busy round-the-clock verifying and posting items about the protests on social media. Some translate that information into English. They're sending information using such social-media terms as #SOSVenezuela and @elefectoeco, or "The Echo Effect."
At rallies and gatherings, there also is a growing push to collect supplies for the protesters.
"We're hearing that the students have been asking for water bottles, energy bars," said Weston resident Sonia Mariano, 46, at rally Friday. Some also want battery-operated walkie-talkies, megaphones and gas masks.
Many protesters in Venezuela are taking refuge behind what are known as guarimbas — impromptu barricades built with mattresses, refrigerators and other large items to block street access for National Guard vehicles and government-backed armed motorcyclists.
Some Venezuelans in South Florida want Maduro to step down now. But others think a more measured approach, including negotiations, would strengthen democracy longer-term.
Many take heart that this round of protests is different than earlier ones, and might make more headway: The street demonstrations are lasting longer. Venezuela's economic crisis now is deeper, mobilizing more residents. The new president lacks the charisma and skills of Chavez.
Plus, there's greater international awareness of the problems, including recent statements by Latin American singers at a recent Miami awards show by Colombia's ex-president and Hispanics in U.S. Congress.
Even Miami Heat player Chris Bosh showed solidarity by writing "SOS Venezuela" on his shoe for Sunday's game.
When opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, 42, turned himself in last week and was jailed for allegedly fomenting violence in Venezuela, it created a new rallying point, some say. Lopez, who was educated at Harvard, pledges stick-to-it-ness for peaceful protests with the slogan, "He who gets tired loses."
For now, Maestres' brother plans only a short visit and a return to his small business in Valencia.
"I'm begging them to stay," said Maestres, who's lived in South Florida for 16 years. "I've offered my home to everyone in my family."
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.