Hundreds of Venezuelans living in the U.S., including many from South Florida, streamed into New Orleans on Sunday to cast ballots in the presidential election in their homeland.
Fort Lauderdale resident Miriam Herrera, like many voters casting ballots in Louisiana, is determined to end the 13-year reign of President Hugo Chavez.
"We want freedom," said Herrera, who flew to New Orleans. "We want our country back. No more Chavez."
With the country's consulate in Miami closed, thousands of Venezuelans traveled by bus, car and plane to cast their votes at the consulate in the Big Easy.
Many spent hundreds of dollars and in some cases more than a day of their time. But several said they were determined to make the journey, as opposition to Chavez among Venezuelans living the U.S. runs high.
Chavez faces a challenge from Henrique Capriles, a 40-year-old former state governor who has pledged solutions to crime, corruption and poorly run public services.
Freddy Osio drove to New Orleans from Miami with his wife. He said he left Miami on Saturday and stopped only for occasional restroom breaks before arriving in New Orleans at 3 a.m.
"I'm very tired," said Osio, who is a Realtor. "But this is my sacrifice for my country. This is an opportunity to liberate Venezuela. It's now or never."
Hundreds were out before dawn in New Orleans, chanting "we want to vote" and singing their national anthem. Cars honked and waved Venezuelan flags out of windows.
Most Venezuelans in the U.S. are professionals or businesspeople who left their country after Chavez became president in 1999. Most Venezuelan voters in the United States live in the Miami area, and the vast majority of those are critical of the Chavez government.
About 15,800 Venezuelans in the U.S. voted in their country's December 2006 presidential election, three-quarters of them in Miami. Of the 10,800 Venezuelans voting in Florida, 98 percent cast ballots for the opposition candidate and 2 percent for Chavez. Thirty-four percent of registered voters did not participate, according to figures from Venezuela's Elections Council.
This time around, people are hopeful, said Marcel Mata, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, who has lived in New Orleans for the past 10 years.
"Everybody feels like there's change coming, so everybody is really excited," he said.
Congressional candidate Joe Garcia called the election a historic opportunity for Venezuela "to turn the page on more than a decade of corruption and autocratic thuggery," and said he was especially inspired by the Venezuelan Americans who went to New Orleans to make their voices heard.
"Given the Chavez regime's record of corruption, fraud and voter intimidation, I urge the international community to closely monitor today's vote," Garcia said in a statement. "It is past time to close the Hugo Chavez chapter and begin to build a brighter future for Venezuela and Latin America.”
Mata has been working with Comando Exterior Venezuela, one of several groups helping to usher U.S.-based Venezuelan voters to New Orleans.
Mata said about 7,000 Venezuelans are expected to be in New Orleans, having arrived in personal cars, on chartered planes and more than 60 buses. Some arrived as early as Wednesday, he said.
Polls opened at 6 a.m. at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, a huge facility just blocks from the Venezuelan consulate office, which was too small to accommodate the voters.
The Venezuelan government closed its Miami mission earlier this year after the State Department expelled consul Livia Acosta amid an investigation into recordings that seemed to implicate her in an Iranian plot for a cyber-attack against the U.S.
The closure affected nearly 20,000 Venezuelan voters living in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina who had registered to vote at the Miami consulate.
"There's some frustration," Mata said. "They're having to take off work and go to such lengths to make this happen, but they're determined to do it and feel better about themselves as citizens for doing it."
Associated Press writer Gisela Salomon contributed to this report from Miami.