MIAMI (AP) – Ramon Perez traveled 16 hours by bus from Miami to New Orleans to vote last October in a Venezuelan presidential election won by Hugo Chavez. Now, Perez and thousands of other Venezuelans are set to do it all again after the death of the leftist leader.
“With each vote we can do something for Venezuela,” Perez said of the thousands of South Florida voters, most long opposed to Chavez and now his choice of a successor.
Venezuelan elections are scheduled April 14 to replace Chavez, a fiery socialist who long bickered with the U.S. government despite its long trade ties with the oil-rich South American country. Chavez died March 5 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer.
The largest U.S. concentration of Venezuelans _ many stridently anti-Chavez _ is found in South Florida. Last October they traveled en masse by car, bus and plane to vote more than 860 miles away in Louisiana _ site of the nearest open consulate where they could vote.
Chavez closed the Miami Venezuelan consulate in January 2012 after his consul general was expelled from the U.S. Ever since Venezuelans have had to conduct all transactions _ from registering a birth to casting a ballot _ at the distant New Orleans consulate.
With a new election looming, Venezuelans in Miami are quickly organizing to get out the vote in New Orleans.
Nearly 8,500 Venezuelans cast ballots in New Orleans last October, 99 percent of them for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. It was the closest the opposition had come to defeating Chavez since his initial 1998 election.
Now the opposition says it’s once again emboldened with Capriles running again, though the governing-party candidate, Nicolas Maduro, is highly favored to win.
Voto Donde Sea, a group of students and young professionals that promotes voting outside Venezuela, is working to raise $35,000 to contract 25 buses and offer discounted tickets. They have organized 60 volunteers to encourage voting.
Another group has contracted 50 buses. Efforts are even under way to charter two planes for the elderly and disabled.
Venezuelans can arrange their own travel individually as well, but tickets are quickly becoming expensive as the election date nears. The civic groups are working to offer Venezuelans cheaper rates by booking large numbers and seeking donations.
“It’s so important to mobilize people to go vote,” said Vanessa Duran, one of the founders of Voto Donde Sea, Spanish loosely for “I’ll Vote Wherever.” “It’s a way of showing Venezuela and the world your opinion about what should be the future of the country.”
The challenges are many. The expatriates have just weeks to raise tens of thousands of dollars, arrange transportation and encourage people to spend 16 hours on a bus, stand in line to vote and then turn around for the long ride home.
Then there are the numbers, which do not weigh in their favor: Last year, Capriles lost by 1.6 million votes; there are just about 38,000 Venezuelan voters in the United States.
“They don’t make a big difference in terms of the number of votes,” said Michael Marx McCarthy, a lecturer at John Hopkins University. He said it’s the government’s election to lose.
Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor and the interim leader, is considered the solid front-runner. Maduro is currently riding Chavez’s coattails amid a wave of grief in Venezuela after Chavez’s death.
But Maduro will need to carve out his own personality while embedding himself in Chavez’s legacy, McCarthy said.
The opposition for their part faces the problem of competing short-term and building long-term. They’ll also need a strong turnout at the polls.
“They’re going to have to flood New Orleans again,” McCarthy said of their chances.
There are an estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants in the United States, with 91,091 in the state of Florida, according to U.S. Census figures. But only a fraction of those are registered to vote, in part because of the consulate’s closure.
The Miami consulate was closed by Chavez as an “administrative” move in 2012 after an FBI investigation into whether its consul general at the time had discussed a possible cyber-attack on the U.S. government while working at the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico _ accusations Chavez said lacked proof.
Most Venezuelans in the U.S. left for economic or political reasons. The majority were in stark disagreement with Chavez’s socialist government, many also frightened by the high number of killings and kidnappings. But many maintain strong family and business ties to the country they left behind.
Last week, Venezuelan community leaders in South Florida announced they were sending a petition to President Barack Obama to seek a reopening of the Miami consulate in any diplomatic discussions with Venezuela.
They also encouraged Venezuela to open up a Miami voting site for April 14 _ but most aren’t expecting that.
“We’re going to vote in New Orleans,” said Pedro Mena, executive secretary of a coalition in Miami that has backed Capriles. “We’re not going to wait around making fruitless efforts. We have to organize ourselves.”
Aerovotar, a group that helped arrange six flights from Miami to New Orleans last year, said it plans to charter at least two planes. Each plane rental costs between $40,000 to $120,000 and organizers said they’ll need at least $150,000.
“The reality is we have less time,” said Andres Morrison, one of Aerovotar’s founders. “But at the same time, it’s a path we’ve taken.”
Organizers are hopeful they’ll get a higher turnout of people traveling by car and bus than last October.
Beatriz Olavarria, who led a commission to distribute voter information last year, said 70 percent of the volunteers who helped run the October election have said they’ll go to New Orleans again, even though their expenses won’t be covered like in 2012.
“We are encouraging no less than 8,500 people to go, if not more,” Olavarria said.
Several of those who traveled to New Orleans last year said they were already making arrangements to do so again.
“It’s a new opportunity,” said Alejandro Frias, 29, who works in a medical office and traveled last year by plane. “We can’t let it pass up.”
Associated Press writer Gisela Salomon contributed to this report.
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