The numbers tell the story of the determination of Venezuelans in South Florida to vote in their country’s presidential election Sunday — and perhaps help end the legacy of the late President Hugo Chávez.
More than 1,730 Venezuelans will spend 36 out of 48 hours or so aboard 31 buses that will drive 1,728 miles to New Orleans and back so they can cast their ballots at their nearest voting center.
The trip will be difficult, 65-year-old Ilda de Marcano acknowledged Saturday as she joined the long line waiting to board the buses at the J.C. Bermudez Park in Doral. “But harder still is what is happening in Venezuela.”
Many of her fellow travelers wore the starred baseball caps, t-shirts and other symbols of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, former governor of the state of Miranda and Chávez’ opponent in the Oct. 7 presidential elections.
If there were any supporters in the crowd of acting President Nicolás Maduro, handpicked by Chávez as his successor before he died March 5, they were not wearing the red symbols of the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Caravan organizer Vanessa Duran said 1,736 Venezuelans had paid $75 each for a seat on one of the 31 buses that left for the long drive to New Orleans in at least two waves Saturday afternoon.
Most of the travelers carried bags or backpacks with just enough supplies for two days — “fresh shirts, underwear, and breath mints,” said 35-year-old bank employee Jorge Ramirez — and the buses packed cases of donated sandwiches and bottled water.
Charter bus company owner Juan Carlos Monroy said the trip would take about 18 hours and four pit stops each way, and he hoped the buses would be back to Doral by Monday afternoon.
Another 10 buses were expected to leave from Weston, West Palm Beach, Tampa, Orlando and Atlanta, and 850 other Venezuelans were to fly to New Orleans and back, with four airplanes taking off from Miami and one from Fort Lauderdale.
The Venezuelan consulate in New Orleans is the nearest polling place approved by the government’s National Electoral Council for voters in the southeastern United States because Chávez ordered the consulate in Miami closed in January of 2012.
The shut-down came after the U.S. government expelled the Miami consul general, Livia Acosta Noguera. U.S. officials gave no reason, but news media reports had linked her to a meeting regarding a cyber attack on U.S. interests.
Venezuela’s consulate in New Orleans arranged for the estimated 20,000 Venezuelans registered to vote in the Miami consulate to cast their ballots in the city’s Pontchartrain Convention and Civic Center.
Helping to organize the voters’ caravan were the Miami branch of opposition coalition Democratic Unity Committee, the Votodondesea voter activist organization and several Venezuelan businessmen in South Florida.
About 1,400 Venezuelans joined a similar caravan from South Florida to New Orleans to vote in the Oct. 7 elections handily won by Chávez, who controlled much of the mass media, the electoral council and the country’s judicial system.
But now Chávez opponents see a chance to defeat Maduro and end the late president’s brand of “21st Century Socialism,” which has thrown the economy into a tailspin and pushed tens of thousands of Venezuelans to move to South Florida.
Miamian Leonor Johnson, 53, said she was going to New Orleans to vote so that “our country gets fixed, and so that communism collapses.”
Nelis Rojas, a Cuba native who lived in Venezuela for 33 years, said she did not mind the long bus rides ahead of her.
“That’s not important. For the fight for freedom and democracy, we have all the time in the world,” she declared. “We are going with our hearts in our hands, and ready to win back freedom in Venezuela.”