(Corrects "on the city" to "of the city" in third paragraph)
By Kevin Gray
MIAMI, March 5 (Reuters) - Venezuelans who fled to the United States under President Hugo Chavez's rule celebrated and expressed cautious optimism on Tuesday that the death of the firebrand populist leader may lead to political change in their homeland.
After the government announced the 58-year-old leftist died, ending his 14 years in power, Venezuelans crowded into Venezuelan-themed restaurants in Miami, home to the largest expatriate community in the United States.
"Finally! Finally! I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!" said Maria Elena Prati, 47, who waved a Venezuelan flag in the Miami suburb of Doral, often referred to as "Doralzuela" because of its large Venezuelan community who make up 21 percent of the city's population and are mostly vehemently opposed to Chavez.
After Chavez took power in 1999, tens of thousands of middle- and upper-class Venezuelans fled the country, complaining of rising crime and shrinking economic opportunities. Many resettled in south Florida, joining the much larger virulently anti-communist Cuban exile community.
According to a 2010 U.S. Census, around 215,000 Venezuelans live in the United States, an increase from 91,000 in 2000. Venezuelan expat communities have also grown in Houston and New York.
At "El Arepazo," a popular Venezuelan restaurant in Doral, people poured in to watch TV reports covering the death as they contemplated a post-Chavez Venezuela.
Many expressed concern that Chavez's death could mean more political instability and uncertainty in the coming months.
On Tuesday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the country will hold a presidential election within 30 days.
The vote will likely pit Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who Chavez appointed as his political successor, against Henrique Capriles, the centrist opposition leader who lost to Chavez in an October election but enjoyed widespread support among Venezuelan expatriates living in the United States.
"We have a chance to chart a new path," said Mary Jenny Parra, a 42-year-old publicist. "May Chavez rest in peace, but more than anything, I hope for peace in Venezuela because I fear we're heading into a very turbulent period."
Carlos Alfonso Ruiz, a 46-year-old businessman who moved to Miami six years ago after the government expropriated his duty-free business in Venezuela, said he was happy to see Chavez no longer in power.
But he was also reflective about his death, pulling out his Blackberry to show a tweet he sent when he heard the news that Chavez had died.
"The man who forced us to leave Venezuela," it read, referring to Chavez. "In his own strange way, he also forced us to both love and appreciate Venezuela. May God bless him." (Editing by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker)