The line to enter the brick building on 30th Street NW grew quickly, as voters — some wearing the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag — waited in Sunday’s rain to cast ballots that would resonate thousands of miles away.
They spoke in high spirits of their hopes for change in their home country, as they voted in an election that would determine whether leftist President Hugo Chavez remains in office.
“We want a change. It is simple. We don’t want Chavez anymore,” said Delia Licon, a tax professional from Springfield who left Caracas nine years ago. “We are tired of the government Hugo Chavez has established. Instead of moving forward, Venezuela is going backwards.”
Exit polls suggested that a great majority of the voters in Washington agreed with Licon and supported Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles.
Nearly 2,200 Venezuelans were registered to vote at the Venezuelan Embassy in Georgetown — one of eight Venezuelan consular offices across the country that opened Sunday for balloting. Embassy officials would not give details about turnout, but afternoon exit polls showed that about 1,600 had voted, with just a handful saying they had cast ballots for Chavez.
Although most were D.C. area residents, dozens had traveled from Ohio, North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Eduardo Medina, 21, an electrical engineering student at Virginia Tech, was 7 years old when Chavez took power. On Sunday, he said he voted for Capriles.
“Since I left, I have definitely seen things getting worse and worse,” said Medina, who moved to the Washington area with his family at age 14. “Insecurity has gone off the roof. Venezuelans just can’t do anything without being afraid of being killed on the street.”
The rising homicide rate is particularly worrisome to those who retain strong ties with their homeland.
Caracas became the deadliest capital in the world in 2010, averaging one murder every hour, according to a State Department report. Nationwide, at least 19,336 people were killed in 2011, according to the report.
“Our main concern is very similar to the main concern Venezuelans in Venezuela have. It is insecurity and violence,” said Carla Bustillos, 33, a D.C. resident who has led efforts to mobilize voters. But Venezuelan nationals, she said, also worry about increasingly tense foreign relations, particularly with the United States, under Chavez.
“Venezuelans are here because the majority no longer find the lifestyle or political situation in Venezuela desirable,” Bustillos said.
Capriles, who at 40 is 18 years younger than Chavez, has worked to appeal to younger voters. His campaign also courted support from voters abroad, who are generally critical of the Chavez government, including in Washington, home to nearly 6,000 Venezuelans.
Nearly 240,000 people in the United States identified themselves as being of Venezuelan origin in 2010, with the largest concentration of Venezuelan nationals in Miami, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, 91,000 Venezuelans lived in the United States in 2000.
Voter participation abroad does not account for even 1 percent of the Venezuelan electorate, but it has been increasing, particularly in the United States.
“This election is crucial. It is our opportunity to change the direction of the history of Venezuela,” said Gladys Martinez, 54, who with 30 others drove from Columbus, Ohio, to vote.
After voters submitted their paper ballots, many remained outside the embassy socializing. The one-way street was packed with people wearing stickers that said “Voté” — “I voted.”
Adolfo Tovar, 47, drove with his wife, Eglis, from their Germantown home, his SUV trunk packed with chicken and beef empanadas, his specialty garlic sauce, and a large cooler with Papelon con limon — a Venezuelan beverage made of sugar cane and lime. As customers lined up, Tovar recalled his life in Caracas, where he said thefts at his two businesses led him to move with his family to Washington 12 years ago.
Tovar and others said they are hoping for new leadership in Caracas.
“Whatever happens is going to impact and decide what’s going to be the future of Venezuela,” said Medina, the Virginia Tech student. “We are very hopeful.”