MIAMI (CBS4) – At 36 years-old, Alex Briceno is an up and coming real estate wheeler dealer in Miami. He was once a star student and track star, in Venezuela. That was before, he says, the Hugo Chavez regime forced him to run for his life.
As a member of the Venezuelan national track team in the late 1990′s, Briceno set records running the high hurdles. He graduated from college with honors – a degree in physical education, and computer science for good measure. He was a contender. He could have been somebody.
“I was a national champion,” Briceno said as he spoke with CBS4′s Gary Nelson in his condo overlooking Biscayne Boulevard.
Briceno’s status, and life, changed when his track team took a trip to Cuba where Hugo Chavez embraced Fidel Castro.
“Seeing Chavez and Fidel Castro holding hands, at that moment, I said, ‘Wow, if this is where my country is going to turn, I need to do something.’” Briceno recalled.
He did something. He spoke out against the Chavez regime, even challenging high level officials he was granted access to due to his status as star athlete and scholar.
“I wanted to feel I was free, I wanted to feel my voice was heard,” he said.
Speaking up rendered Alex’s medals and many accomplishments worthless. He found his life was on the line as he received threats from supporters of the regime, who he says would not tolerate dissent.
“My life was in danger. And when you are in a country where people are doing everything in order to be in power, it was very hard for me,” Briceno said.
So Alex left his mother and father and extended family, and with only a suitcase and a few dollars, came to Miami. He was granted political asylum after the U.S. government found he faced persecution if he was returned to Venezuela.
In May, 2011, Alex swore allegiance to the United States at a naturalization ceremony and became a card-carrying, flag-waving U.S. citizen. Memories of the moment bring tears to his eyes.
“I have accomplished so many things, so many dreams,” he said. “I feel happy to be here. I feel safe to be here.”
As a U.S. citizen, Alex slipped back into Venezuela for a brief time in 2012 and was dismayed by what he saw.
“The poverty, the crime, the suffering, it was everywhere,” He said. “It was like I was watching a movie in black and white. It wasn’t the bright country that I remember.”
Briceno believes the impoverished population of Venezuela has bought into a failed socialist system, spurred by food and health care programs the government has put in place, while failing to improve their overall lot in life.
He attributes Chavez’s re-elections to the former leader’s persuasive charisma and iron-fisted control of virtually everything, including the huge purse that is the state-owned oil company.
“It’s a magnificent country. We just need a system that can work, that can protect you,” he said. “I feel sad for the future of Venezuela. I feel sad for the future of my family.”
As the interview concluded, Briceno donned a pair of designer sunglasses, pulled on a sporty jacket and hopped into his new SUV, heading out to chase down a lead on a real estate deal.
His is a new life, in a new country and, for now, there is no looking back.