Marina Diaz and her adult sons, Conrad and Oscar, drove all day Saturday from Miami Lakes and arrived at 11:30 p.m. outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, expecting to stand in line with thousands of fellow Venezuelans. They got there so early that they were ahead of everyone.
But within a half-hour and into the early morning, thousands of other Venezuelan expats descended by bus, taxi, plane and cars to join Diaz to vote in Sunday’s Venezuelan presidential election. For Diaz, 56, the 14-hour journey was necessary to express her dismay with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
“Venezuela needs a new person to lead the country. It’s a disaster,” Diaz said. “We have to fight with the vote. That’s why it’s important.”
Organizers expected 55 busloads carrying about 7,500 people and 10 chartered planes with another 1,200 registered voters to arrive in New Orleans — a city not usually associated with Latin American politics and culture — to cast their votes in Chávez’s most hotly contested election since winning the presidency in 1998.
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After Chávez closed the Venezuelan consulate in Miami earlier this year, the approximately 20,000 registered voters in Miami were given the choice to cast their ballots in New Orleans, which has just under 700 registered voters. In August, organizers started working out the logistics, said Jose Hernandez, a planner from Miami who coordinated efforts with New Orleans officials.
“The amount of people here shows the idea that freedom is a concept in the soul of the people,” he said.
In a later news conference, Hernandez said people would have traveled to Alaska if they had to in order to cast their vote against Chávez.
A chilly morning did not cool the festive mood of an estimated 3,000 people who stood in a line along the length of the convention center as polls opened at 6 a.m., according to Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, the city’s deputy mayor of public safety.
Sneed paced back and forth in between conversations with New Orleans police officers stationed outside, moving cars along that honked and waved large Venezuelan flags to the crowd’s delight.
“We’re here for public safety and crowd control. We’re here to make sure things work like they’re supposed to,” Sneed said, adding that his office had been working for a month on preparations for the vote.
At times, voters sang the Venezuelan national anthem a capella, but when they erupted into anti-Chávez chants, organizers tried desperately to quiet them.
Marcel Mata, a New Orleans organizer, said the country’s colors of blue, yellow and red were intentionally missing to observe Venezuelan election laws and avoid the assembly turning into a political rally. Though a supporter of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, Mata was among those trying to shush the masses.
Miguel Garcia, of Elkhart, Ind., and Freddy Moros, of Miami, were favorites as they made four passes along the convention center in a white minivan. While Garcia drove, Moros held onto a white tube with a large Venezuelan flag attached to it as the crowd cheered. Garcia said later that he wanted to motivate and impassion those waiting.
With few conversations occurring in English, the early-morning activity piqued the interest of curious onlookers. After voting, Frank and Anabella Medina of West Palm Beach didn’t hesitate to give a crash course on Venezuelan current affairs outside a nearby hotel to several visitors oblivious to New Orleans’ role on the international stage. The Medinas were unable to book a hotel in the city as they made the trek by car, settling on a room in suburban Slidell.
At 2 a.m., they woke up and made the 30-minute drive to New Orleans. Having completed their duty by 8 a.m., they planned to take a quick tour of the city before returning home.
“We have to work tomorrow,” Frank Medina said.