Doral, Fla. – At the El Arepazo restaurant, just outside Miami, groups of Venezuelans eat arepas, the pancake-like sandwiches filled with meat or cheese, play dominoes, or watch the satellite TV feeds straight from their country.
One topic dominates their conversations at the tables in this brightly-lit eatery: The upcoming election on Sunday that has Socialist President Hugo Chávez facing his toughest opponent yet in right-leaning candidate Henrique Capriles.
"We left because we saw Communism coming to Venezuela and we saw much more opportunity for our family in the United States," says engineer Sergio Fiallo, who left Venezuela with his family of four in 2003. Chávez and his Socialist party were elected to power in 1999.
We see an opportunity to end the dictatorship, we have to end the presidency of a man who wants to be president forever
Like thousands of expected voters, on Sunday the Fiallos will have to travel to the closest Venezuelan consulate to them, which is in New Orleans, Louisiana - a distance of 864 miles and at an estimated cost of $500 per person. That is because, in a move seen by many as a way to disenfranchise thousands of votes, earlier this year Chávez shut down the consulate in Miami.
But that never disillusioned Venezuelans in Miami, home of the largest community of Venezuelans expatriates.
On Saturday 50 buses will be headed to New Orleans and on Sunday six chartered planes will depart to New Orleans from Miami, a city with 20,000 Venezuelans registered to vote. The overwhelming majority of them are vehemently anti-Chávez and want to make a difference with their vote.
"We see an opportunity to end the dictatorship, we have to end the presidency of a man who wants to be president forever," says Fiallo.
"Each and every vote counts. Every little grain of sand matters this time. We need everybody to vote for Capriles," says Gustavo Balles, a contractor, before taking a swig from his Miller Lite. “Every vote matters."
Chávez held a 10-point lead over Capriles in a survey released last week by the Venezuelan polling firm Datanalisis. But the 49 percent who said they intend to vote for Chávez was dramatically lower than the 63 percent who re-elected him in 2006. The latest poll said 11 percent of those interviewed didn't reveal a preference.
A survey by the Venezuelan polling firm Consultores 21 put the two candidates roughly even, with 46.5 percent saying they would vote for Capriles and nearly 46 percent saying they would vote for Chávez
Despite the fervent desire to vote for a candidate with a legitimate chance at the presidency in Venezuela, many Venezuelans here do not plan on returning to their homeland if Capriles wins in an upset.
"We already have our lives here. We will go back on vacation but we’re not going to back and live there." Marco Casinelli, 23, a student at Florida International University. "The crime rates are not going to go down."
"No, we are not moving back,” concurs Fiallo, “we have our lives established here. Our children are about to start college in a little bit," he says slowly as a dominoes game is played behind him with men in fedoras. "We are voting and doing this more for our families that still remain in Venezuela."
But despite the vote being two days away, some are already making plans for a non-Chavez Venezuela.
"I would like to go back. But it is going to take a long time to recover the country. It is not the same country, the country my parents had," says Stephanie Tovar, a 21-year-old college student, who says she hopes the Chávez government "sticks by the rules" in the election.
While there have been widespread rumors about Chavez manipulating the vote count, in a country that he’s ruled with a tight fist for 14 years, some still remain optimistic that true democracy will prevail.
"Hopefully, I think, Capriles is going to win, but we have to wait and see," she says. "I think things are going to change a lot. Capriles has a good plan, a plan to recover our country. I think that is the hope we have."