New Orleans is a city used to large rowdy crowds, but not quite the ones that unexpectedly hit it this weekend. The city became Sunday the electoral epicenter for thousands of Venezuelans living in Miami, who traveled by bus or plane to cast their vote in a key presidential election. A few months ago Hugo Chavez’s government shut down the consulate in Miami, the city with the highest concentration of Venezuelans living in the US.
Thousands of Venezuelans started to line up from the wee hours of Sunday morning, eager to cast their vote as soon as the electoral center opened at 6 a.m.
In the long hours they had to stand in line, many entertained themselves chanting the national hymn and making human waves. The lines stretched the width of the N. Moria Convention Center, which spans about a mile long.
Venezuelans across the world voted to either re-elect incumbent President Hugo Chavez to a third term in office, or to elect Henrique Capriles, the Democratic Unity candidate, who is aspiring to rule the South American nation for the next six years.
Despite the fact that coming to New Orleans meant either a close to 20-hour trip or expensive flights and hotels, Venezuelans took it in stride and several non-profit organizations sprung up to help those who could not afford to pay for the trip. There is an estimated 19,452 Venezuelans registered to vote in the city of Miami.
Anselmo Rodríguez, spokesperson for the mobilization and liaison between Miami, New Orleans and the Venezuela’s National Electoral Counsel (CNE in Spanish), said that by 3 p.m. some 5,000 had already voted. “The line started moving faster after Consul Jorge Guerrero allowed the removal of a pre-check point that had caused a-two-hour delay,” he said.
By early afternoon voters were still getting into the Big Easy as there was a delayed flight full of Venezuelan seniors. The electoral center was schedule to close at 6 p.m. but an extension was expected.
According to Rodriguez, who is also campaign director for Henrique Capriles in New Orleans, the official count of busses and flights mobilized to New Orleans from Miami stands at 70 busses and 12 flights. Thus leaves the official estimate in more than 7,000 voters plus an additional 3,000 that never checked with the organization and the ones who decided to come at the last minute.
But not all has gone as smoothly as expected, said Rodriguez. He explained that three people were not able to vote because when they finally made it to their voting station they found out someone had voted for them already. Rodriguez said that foul play was suspected, because according to the records this problem had never happened in Miami.
Consul Guerrero was unavailable for comments despite several tries.
Alfredo Ortega, member of Miami’s Democratic Unit, said the organization had estimated that more than 8,000 people had shown up, a number close to the number of voters who participated in the primary elections in Miami last February.
“If Chavez had intended to cut off Miami voters, the tables turned on him,” said Ortega, who also praised what he called “electoral heroes” because despite a 15-hour bus ride, they were still happy to make a 4-hour line to exercise their right to vote.
An example of this is Ely Bravo, a renowned radio personality, who lives in a Caribbean island he refused to name, but flew into Miami Friday and drove to New Orleans. He said he was very happy to see the changes that are already taking place in Venezuela and the way the people is massively participating in the election.
Despite plenty of warnings issued by the CNE in Caracas saying that it would not allow patriotic symbols or candidate-related paraphernalia in the polls, people in New Orleans showed up wearing caps and shirts and daringly parading the patriotic tricolor in anything from manicures to carnival beads.
Cira Apitz is a Venezuelan freelance journalist based in Miami.