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DORAL, FL – In a Miami suburb dubbed "Little Caracas," the thousands of Venezuelans lined up to board a fleet of buses look like they are headed to a World Cup soccer game. From baseball hats and face paint, to running shoes displaying their national colors of yellow, blue and red, they sing loudly, yell chants, and enthusiastically flap their large flags against the dense south Florida humidity.
However, instead of a sports event, this fervent group is travelling over 864 miles -one way- just to vote in Sunday's Venezuelan presidential election.
"My family is in political asylum, so we can't go back to Venezuela right now," says Vanessa Rodriguez, a journalism major at Florida International University, "the only way to vote is to go to New Orleans so that's what we are doing."
Rodriguez and her family, like many expats, are flying into Louisiana just for the day.
Earlier this year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez closed down the consulate in Miami, home of the largest group of Venezuelans outside of Venezuela, in a move seen by critics as an attempt to disenfranchise an exile community that is vehemently against Chávez and the effects of his 14 years of rule.
I'm traveling not only for myself but for all Venezuelans who want our country to be what it was before. With Chávez everything is going wrong. Our country is in shambles.
"I'm going to vote in New Orleans because I want my country to be free. Free from Cuba. Free from Chávez. That's what I want, " Lourdes Vargas enthusiastically yells to reporters before she rushes to one of the departing buses. "I want liberty."
Vargas, like the overwhelming majority of the Venezuelan community in Florida, is supporting Henrique Capriles, the 40 year old opposition leader, who is a legitimate threat to Chávez's14 year hold on the presidency, according to recent polls.
Roger Gold says he is willing to pay several hundred dollars and the 32 hours of driving from Miami to New Orleans in order to ensure that Capriles gets his support.
"I'm traveling to take out Chávez, " says Gold, who holds a Venezuelan flag in front of his bus seat. "I'm traveling not only for myself but for all Venezuelans who want our country to be what it was before. With Chávez everything is going wrong. Our country is in shambles."
Despite a tightening race, some of the Venezuelan voters believe that if Capriles did manage an upset win, the South American country, which is already suffering from an astronomic crime rate and police corruption, could become more unstable because the "Chavista" government would not allow a Chávez loss.
"I definitely think there will be a violent outcome," says Andreina Mata, 20, who is travelling with her mom to the Crescent city. "I think (Chávez) followers are all going to rebel. I don't think they will accept the outcome of the elections. I think they are going to want him back."
Mata's family left Venezuela 12 years ago and moved to Miami because of their disagreement with Chávez's socialist policies, she says. However, she still has relatives in Caracas and has grown increasingly worried for them.
"I told my family to prepare for the elections like it was going to be a hurricane or storm. To have everything in stock at home just in case," Mata says.