Michel Ferrero, a Venezuelan who lives in Miami, is determined to cast a ballot Sunday when his compatriots vote in an election that could abruptly end socialist President Hugo Chavez’s long reign in this oil-rich country.
But unlike voters here in Venezuela, Ferrero has to travel 864 miles across four states to reach the nearest polling station. Earlier this year, Chavez’s government closed its consulate in Miami — which served the largest Venezuelan immigrant community in the United States — forcing 20,000 people registered to vote there to find their way to New Orleans to cast their ballots.
The thousands of Miami voters expected to make the trip could give Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old challenger in the race, an edge if the election proves close, as two opinion polls predict.
“It’s the largest community of Venezuelans living outside of Venezuela,” said Demetrio Boersner, an analyst and historian in Caracas. “They will be important, very important. You might say vital.”
Many of those Venezuelans were forced into exile during Chavez’s 14 years in power, a period in which he has expropriated businesses and farms and fired thousands from the state oil company, and they have made Miami a bastion of anti-Chavez activism. In his latest victory, a 2006 landslide over Manuel Rosales, Chavez drew the votes of only 2 percent of those voting in the city.
“When the future of your country is in play, 25 or more hours on the road is nothing,” said Ferrero, 47, who migrated to Miami 12 years ago and plans to drive to New Orleans on Friday with a fellow Venezuelan. “I think you have to make the sacrifice.”
Venezuela does not allow absentee voting. Voters are required to cast ballots in person at one of more than 13,800 polling centers in Venezuela or at diplomatic posts abroad.
The story behind the closing of the consulate in Miami is a bizarre one, full of the kind of intrigue that has long made the city the scene of exile plots by Cuban and other Latin American political refugees in the past few decades.
In January, the Venezuelan government shuttered the mission after the U.S. State Department expelled consul Livia Acosta, accusing her of taking part in a scheme against the United States allegedly being hatched by Iran, a Chavez ally. The move came after the Spanish-language Univision television channel aired a video that appeared to depict Acosta talking about gaining access to codes to U.S. nuclear installations.
“It’s unfair,” Chavez said publicly at the time about the expulsion. “It’s abusive, it’s immoral — the expulsion of the lady consul who was doing her obligation, her job.”
“There will be no consulate in Miami,” Chavez announced to cheers in comments carried on television. He also suggested that the closure was temporary, calling it an “administrative” step.
But Venezuelans in Miami such as Enrique Faillace, 45, a publicist, saw it as a strategic blow against an opposition that was gathering momentum at the time.
“They were looking for an excuse, knowing that closing this consulate would cut off the place in the United States with the most Venezuelan voters,” he said.
In his case, Faillace said, the move “gave me more desire to go vote.” He plans to take a commercial flight to New Orleans on Saturday night, in time to vote early Sunday when the polling station opens.
For some Venezuelan voters in Miami, that option represents a hardship. While many are entrepreneurs or experienced professionals like Faillace, others are students, retirees or laborers with limited financial means.
Carolina Guevara, 21, a student and part-time secretary who left Venezuela at age 12 with her mother, said she was indignant when the consulate was closed, knowing that a journey to New Orleans would be expensive. But, she added, “the second reaction was determination, to do what I needed to do to go vote. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
Guevara is helping a Venezuelan-formed group called Voto Donde Sea, or I Vote Anywhere, which is raising funds to provide discount fares on up to 20 buses that will transport about 1,100 people to New Orleans. Guevara is selling tricolored baseball caps like the one worn by Capriles, the challenger, and T-shirts bearing the “I Vote Anywhere” slogan.
Others are trying to find space on six chartered planes that will transport 1,164 voters to New Orleans free of charge. Andres Casanova, 34, a financial adviser in Miami, and a childhood friend, Andres Morrison, 34, have been seeking donations through their Web site, Aerovotar.com, to charter as many planes as possible.
“This was born of necessity,” Casanova said. “What we tell passengers is, ‘Get to the airport, we take you to New Orleans, and there we have buses to take you to vote.’ ”
Among those who got a seat is Tiberio Faria, a former petroleum engineer who lives in Doral, a city next to Miami that is home to so many Venezuelan immigrants that its moniker is “Little Caracas.” Faria said that he couldn’t endure a 1,700-mile round trip by road.
“I’m not 18 anymore,” he said. “I’m 75.”
It remains unclear how many Venezuelans will make it to New Orleans. Some, like Ferrero, are driving on their own or booking their own flights. All are also aware of the opinion polls that show Chavez winning handily, as he always has in presidential elections, despite the Miami vote.
But Ferrero said he felt it was his duty to make the effort.
“Even though I’m here 12 years, it would be very selfish for me to forget my country,” he said. “My friends are from there, and my family is there. And I believe that every vote counts.”