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Venezuelans go to the polls Sunday in an election that will decide if President Hugo Chavez remains in power. Polls indicate it's his most serious electoral challenge since taking office nearly 14 years ago, and it's mobilizing large numbers of voters in Venezuela — and in the U.S.
Nearly 20,000 Venezuelans living in Florida are registered to vote, and most arrived in the past decade, since Chavez took power. He upended the old power structure, installing a socialist government that seized property and nationalized industries.
One of the expatriates is Lophanie Bertrand, 94, who says she's determined to cast her ballot Sunday to oust Chavez. She says he has caused a lot of pain, and poor people in Venezuela don't have enough to eat.
Bertrand arrived in Miami several years ago, accompanying her daughter, a political activist and Chavez opponent who received political asylum.
But like all Venezuelans in Miami, to vote, Bertrand will have to travel nearly 900 miles to New Orleans. That's because earlier this year, Chavez closed the Venezuelan consulate in Miami. He took that action after the U.S. State Department expelled the Venezuelan consul, charging that she was involved in a cyberterrorism plot.
Venezuelans here believe the consulate was closed in a deliberate effort to disenfranchise them — to discourage them from voting.
Bertrand now lives in Miami with another daughter, Giselle Beauvoir. But Beauvoir says when she began investigating the cost of traveling by air with her mother to New Orleans to vote, she realized it would be too expensive.
"I was so sad, thinking about what the best to do," Beauvoir says. "Because I couldn't tell my mother, 'Listen, in this election, you aren't going to be able to vote.' It's the most important election I think in her life."
Fortunately for Beauvoir and her mother, they'll be flying to New Orleans free because of a group of volunteers.
In a conference room in downtown Miami, seven young Venezuelans are working the phones and their laptops. They're part of Aerovotar, a group that raised enough money to book six charter flights to New Orleans to help Venezuelans vote.
The seats are being mostly filled by elderly and disabled Venezuelans who may not be up to the 16-hour bus ride to New Orleans. It's a nonpartisan group, but volunteer Alyssa Perez concedes the vast majority of those involved, in fact the vast majority of Venezuelans in the U.S., oppose Chavez.
"We're out of our country for a reason, you know. And it's basically, well, because of the current government. Most of us want to be able to go back to our country, maybe not live there, but be able to go back and forth and have our children go there. And we still have families we have to fight for there. So, I think that is what got us all together," Perez says.
Some 1,100 Venezuelans will be flying from Miami on Sunday. Many more will travel in buses. In all, up to 8,000 Venezuelans from Florida are expected to make the trip.
Volunteer organizer Beatriz Olavarria says most will vote for Chavez challenger Henrique Capriles. Unlike in Venezuela, Olavarria says, voters in this country don't fear harassment when they cast their ballots.
"The government will make sure, they will threaten you, they will scare you, they will, you know, do last-minute things that you're going to think about it. Outside of Venezuela, we don't have that. We're not going to be jobless because we go vote and so on and so forth. So, it's a genuine vote that only wants the best for the country," Olavarria says.
Olavarria's only concern now is whether the Venezuelan consulate in New Orleans will be able to handle several thousand determined Venezuelan voters.