NEW ORLEANS -- Thousands of Venezuelans traveled from South Florida to New Orleans for the second time in six months Sunday to vote in presidential elections in the South American country, defying the physical distance between the two cities and a storm that delayed the opening of the polls.
It was a day of contrast, where the voter’s experience was defined by the time of the day chosen to go to the polls. The storm that pounded New Orleans in the morning delayed for more than an hour the opening of the electoral center located at the Pontchartrain Convention Center. The almost 4,000 Venezuelans that showed up to vote before noon had to wait in line for hours.
“We are soaked but we made it, we voted,” said Janna Itriago, 38, of Weston, who spent her birthday traveling to New Orleans.
Itriago and her husband left Miami at 5 a.m. on the first chartered flight to transport Venezuelan voters and returned at 2 p.m., after waiting in line and in the rain for more than three hours.
Voters that arrived to the Pontchartrain Convention Center later in the afternoon had a totally different experience. There was almost no waiting and the sun was shinning.
“It took me less than four minutes to vote,” said Rosa Gomez, 59, of Miami. “It took me longer to walk from the parking lot to the building.”
More than 3,300 voters traveled to New Orleans by the special vans, buses or chartered flights organized by Venezuelan groups in South Florida, according to Pedro Mena, Secretary General of the Mesa de Unidad Democrática in Miami, an umbrella organization of opposition groups. That number did not include those who chose to travel on their own either by car or by flying in commercial.
Almost 20,000 voters were registered at the Venezuelan Consulate in Miami before it was closed by then-President Hugo Chávez early last year. Caracas justified the decision as a response to the expulsion of the then-Consul General amid allegations of participation in meetings to discuss possible cyber attacks on U.S. interests.
Venezuela’s Electoral Council reassigned the voters to the consulate in New Orleans and last October and more than 9,000 people traveled from South Florida to vote in the presidential elections that pitted Chávez against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
Organizers were expecting slightly less participation in this election, in part because of the cost of the trip but also because of the short time that was given to prepare for the election — just 10 days.
“This time people are more excited because the adversary is weaker,” said Yeira Calderon, 42, of Miami. “This time we are better prepared, more calm and better organized. I never thought of not coming.”
Calderon chose to travel again even after having what she called “a nightmarish experience” in October. Her chartered flight was delayed for six hours and by the time they made it to New Orleans most of her group could not vote because the electoral authorities closed the polls.
“Voting is the only thing that Venezuelans living abroad can do for our country,’’ she said. “How could I say no?”
Some of the voters that could not vote last October seized the opportunity to participate this time.
“I could not come last time because I had to work,” said Norka Salomon, 42. “I am very happy that I could be here this time. My love for Venezuela and the insistence of my comadre made me come.”
In front of the Convention Center, voters lined up to have their pictures taken with Rafael Moros and his gigantic Venezuelan flag. “We brought it especially from Venezuela for the elections,” said Moros of Miami, who drove to New Orleans with his brothers and a brother-in-law to vote.