This weekend, I will fly nearly 700 miles to New Orleans, check into a hotel and take a day off work to vote in a presidential election. Not that presidential election — the one in Venezuela, where I was born and reared and still hold dual citizenship.
It’s a far more complicated and expensive undertaking than my plans for Nov. 6, when I will walk three blocks to my American Legion hall precinct in Coral Gables to cast a ballot in the race between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
But to have a say in the choice between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and challenger Henrique Capriles is worth it.
I’m lucky. Not all countries allow dual citizenship, and not all countries allow their citizens who live overseas to vote.
It used to be easier.
We used to vote in the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, housed in a shiny Brickell high-rise. One election was so busy that it was held at the convention center in Coconut Grove. Another took place at Miami Dade College’s Kendall campus. A primary overtook a strip mall in Doralzuela, the city otherwise known as Doral.
But Venezuela closed its Miami consulate earlier this year after a diplomatic spat with the U.S. Nearly 20,000 voters registered there from Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas — the largest precinct of Venezuelan voters — were transferred to the consulate in New Orleans.
There’s no voting by mail, no early voting and only one day to cast ballots: Sunday.
I cover Miami-Dade government and politics. Lately I’ve written about lawsuits challenging local election results, an investigation into boleteros in Hialeah, a noncitizen voter purge. Big, weighty issues that matter. Suspected voter fraud. Alleged voter suppression.
Try having to book a flight to fill in a single bubble on Election Day.
Some of my entrepreneurial countrymen have set up charter flights and buses to shuttle scores of voters from Florida to Louisiana, even if they can’t pay. The groups have solicited and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. Classmates from my American high school in Caracas, now scattered across the globe, have joined the fundraising effort on Facebook.
Skeptics say the votes won’t count. The tally of votes from the heavily anti-Chávez precincts abroad have yet to be reported on the official election results website — for referendum elections that took place in 2007 and 2009.
But precisely because the overseas vote skews so strongly against the government, it may be more difficult to fudge the results coming out of New Orleans this weekend. No one would believe it.
The alternative, of course, is to not vote. But then I would spend Election Day languishing on my couch, palms sweating, watching Venezuelan news on television and frequently messaging relatives on the ground and friends I haven’t spoken to in months to hear the latest word on the street.
And I’d be in no position to complain about my native country having the fourth-highest homicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations. About a list of broken government promises so long that Capriles’ campaign spent 12 hours reciting them in a city plaza. About the hours and hours of cadenas, or “chained” government broadcasts, on every single television and radio station, a dreaded interruption escaped only through cable or satellite. The poorest slums in Caracas are adorned with gray DirecTV dish antennas.
Maybe it’s because I’ve only worked as a journalist in Miami and not in Caracas, or because I became a U.S. citizen as an adult and don’t attach childhood memories to politics here. But there’s something visceral to me about Venezuelan politics.
We spent many gatherings growing up, from dinners to car rides to birthdays, dissecting the latest presidential speech and trading anecdotes about the latest kidnapping. Riots broke out in Caracas at dawn on my fourth birthday. A few days later, I stood in a bread line. At 17, months after losing a contact lens to a tear-gas stain, I feared I wouldn’t graduate high school on time because classes were canceled for two months in the middle of a national strike.
Soon after moving here, I learned that there are three taboo topics for polite conversation: religion, money and politics. What made me most homesick my first year in Miami was not only missing out on current events, but also not being able to constantly talk about them.
But it’s different in Miami, where so many of us have our feet here but pieces of our hearts somewhere else. The first thing people ask me about when they find out I’m Venezuelan is, “How are things over there? How much longer will Chávez be in power?”
I don’t know, I say. He’s been there since I was 13.
But I’m flying to New Orleans to vote. I have to.