By Kevin Gray
MIAMI (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez's battle against cancer has Venezuela's fiercely critical exiles abuzz, but few are betting it heralds the end of his 12-year grip on power in their oil producing homeland.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country in the last decade to escape what they say is rising crime, dwindling economic opportunities and political persecution.
Many settled in south Florida, joining the virulently anti-communist Cuban exile community and turning the area into an anti-Chavez bastion.
Chavez's announcement last week that he had undergone cancer surgery in Cuba triggered rumors and speculation inside the exile communities.
Although many are vehemently opposed to Chavez, whose socialist policies have polarized his country, there have been few signs of gloating over his illness.
Instead, while criticizing his government's decision to keep secret key details of his illness, many exiles say they hope only he will finally be defeated at the presidential election next year.
The 56-year-old Chavez, who returned home from Cuba on Monday, has admitted he will have to follow "strict" medical treatment after his cancer surgery. That could force a drastic change in his energetic, hands-on leadership style at a time when foes are looking to capitalize on economic and social problems ahead of the presidential election.
Still, some exiles feel it is too early to tell how it might shake up Venezuela's political landscape.
"Chavez isn't someone who is easily defeated," said Sara Perez, 44, who works at a tourism company. "He's the kind of leader who can turn any sickness into political gain."
She spoke at the "El Arepazo", a Venezuelan restaurant in the Miami suburb of Doral, which is jokingly known as "Doralzuela" because so many of its residents are Venezuelan.
Umberto Lucas, a 44-year-old pilot and Chavez critic, sat at a nearby table. He kept an occasional eye on a flat screen TV showing Venezuela's opposition channel Globovision.
"The situation is so confusing," he said. "No doctor has given a formal diagnosis. Who knows if he's telling the truth."
Even before Chavez's cancer announcement and subsequent return home, the firebrand socialist leader has for long dominated conversations among ex-pat Venezuelans in Miami, just as Cuba's Fidel Castro has obsessed the city's Cuban exiles for decades.
Small talk at children's birthday parties or barbecues hosted by Venezuelans quickly turn to Chavez and the latest political developments in Venezuela.
'NO RETURN HOME WHILE CHAVEZ THERE'
As speculation swirled over his illness, many exiles texted or chatted online with family or friends back home to hear the latest gossip.
Middle-class professionals and the wealthy have led a surge in the exodus of Venezuelans from their homeland in recent years. Some have relocated in smaller numbers to other Latin American countries.
Opposition officials say there may be 1 million Venezuelans living abroad. Most say they won't return home while Chavez stays in power.
One Venezuelan businessman who ran a catering business in Caracas, but uprooted to Guatemala last year, said he would love to bring his family -- and money -- back to Venezuela if Chavez left the political scene.
"I love my country, I never wanted to leave," said the 43-year-old father-of-two who asked not to be named and is now involved in the construction business in Guatemala. He returns frequently to Venezuela to see friends and relatives.
"Under Chavez, it is simply impossible to do business. If Chavez goes, and Venezuela becomes democratic again, I'll be on the first plane back."
But others were more circumspect about the chance that any future government without Chavez would spur a wave of returning Venezuelans.
"Venezuelans have left in a slow drip and I think that's how they would return," said Luis Pacheco, a former official in Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA who now lives in Colombia.
He and some 22,000 other people were purged from their posts after a 2002-2003 anti-Chavez oil strike and they were then replaced with Chavez loyalists.
Lucas, the pilot, said it was "way too premature to think about any post-Chavez era" with the left-wing leader back in Venezuela and looking to demonstrate he is still fully in charge.
Appearing pale but defiant, Chavez saluted his people on Tuesday on the 200th anniversary of Venezuela's independence, but he did so from inside the presidential palace instead of personally attending the independence celebrations.
Lucas said he worried political uncertainty would initially only deepen if Chavez were forced to abandon the presidency.
"Even if Chavez were to leave power, it is going to take at least 10 years to get the country back on its feet," he said. "By that time, I'll probably be too old to try to go back."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Marianna Parraga in Caracas; Editing by Pascal Fletcherand Kieran Murray)