Now we know the outcome of Sunday’s presidential election in Venezuela, It’s time to tell the story of the passionate expatriate voters in the United States and their struggle to have a say in their homeland’s democratic process.
The largest community of Venezuelans abroad lives in south Florida – within striking distance of Miami. Of the 100,000 Venezuelans eligible to vote around the world, 20 per cent live in the south-east US.
So when the Chavez administration closed its consulate in Miami, as part of a feud with the US state department over Iran and alleged spying, thousands of Venezuelans were forced to travel many kilometres around the Gulf of Mexico to the city of New Orleans in Louisiana to vote.
At 4am on Sunday morning I joined the first of 1,200 people at Miami airport waiting for six chartered aircraft for whom a road trip to NOLA would have been too much.
As I walked in to the departure lounge, Lynda Ocanto was entertaining the crowd with a spontaneous rendition of a Venezuelan folk song – a love song for the capital, Caracas.
Lynda said she thought all Venezuelans who might normally have voted in Miami would go wherever they had to vote – even Alaska!
Donations from industry
“Even if they asked us to go to Alaska to vote I think that you will see the same movement. I think everybody will be going to Alaska today in order to vote because we need to do something for the land that gave us birth.”
To pay for the flight a group of enterprising locals raised funds on the internet and took donations from industry.
Andres Casanova is one of the main organisers.
A financial adviser by profession, he told me as we stood in the old Boeing 767 he and his pals had rented for the day that they hadn’t asked how passengers were planning on voting. He didn’t really have to ask – it was obvious most were anti-Chavez.
“Every vote counts. You know every vote can make a difference either way … It depends who people are voting for.”
Once in New Orleans the Venezuelans from the charter flights came face-to-face with a sight most, I suspect, had not been expecting – a crowd of thousands queuing to get into vote.
The number of voters was so dense it was tough to get people in wheel chairs through.
The crowd regularly broke into cheering and chanting the name of their country … singing the national anthem too.
Inside there was talk of the Venezuelan consulate staff – shall we say – not going out of their way to help the voters.
But when it had all died down things seemed to have gone off pretty well, all things being equal.
Maria Rodrigez Azara, a US-Venezuelan voter, said: “I me, me in my fifty years have never seen anything like this every, ever, ever … and all the Tweets that I get from Venezuela I have never seen anything like either.”
‘Crying out for change’
Tomas Alvarez, who was in a wheel chair with his wife by his side, explained: “We’re crying out for a change in Venezuela, it’s a rich country with nice people and we don’t know how he’s still there.”
Juan Barreno told me: “It’s like a war you know, wars have different battles. I think this is like the last battle: we take him out or the country’s going to go down.”
Now that the election’s over and Chavez has won, it’s possible to view what happened here in a little more perspective.
Despite what the polls were indicating and the high hopes of the voters in the US, I don’t think anyone was seriously expecting to oust Chavez this time round.
But their efforts do signal a growing discontent with Chavez and express the feeling of many in the towns and cities back home (if not the country areas) that his 14-year socialist fatherland experiment needs to end, if Venezuela is to live up to its full potential as a world-class country.