Although most Venezuelans living in the United States reside near Miami, they had to make the nearly 900-mile trek to New Orleans to cast a vote in an election to replace the late President Hugo Chavez. The journey and wet reception didn’t dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm.
The polls opened at 6 a.m., about the time a downpour soaked the first of 8,000 voters at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner. But skies cleared in mid-morning, and scores of buses, cabs and cars arrived in intervals. Lines were much shorter than they were in October, when voters cast ballots at the New Orleans Convention Center. Then, opposition candidate Enrique Capriles won 98 percent of their votes, but ultimately lost to Chavez by 10 percent.
This time, Chavez’ successor, Nicolas Madura, faced Capriles to be the next president. Jose Hernandez of Miami coordinated travel arrangements for voters in Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina. Hernandez explained the journey was necessary because Chavez closed the Miami consulate last year.
“It’s very difficult. It’s very hard, but the people did it," Hernandez said. "And this is a kind of protest to show that we need our consulate back.”
Hernandez says the process made the community closer and proved it’s a strong political force.
“We are now recognized as a community in progress.”
Marcel Mata of New Orleans helped with arrangements.
“People were getting drenched. But people still got out of the buses, started lining up. They were singing. They were singing national anthem a cappella," she said. "Everybody kept the spirit going. These guys are fighters. They’re electoral heroes.”
Hundreds sang and cheered outside the meeting center as voters left after casting their ballots.