Alicia Rodriguez so dislikes President Hugo Chavez, and blames him for making her native Venezuela unsafe, that the 80-year-old retiree is flying 1,300 miles from her adopted home in Miami to cast a vote against him.
She’s not the only one. In what’s shaping up to be Chavez’s toughest election battle yet, Venezuelans who’ve fled to Florida since he took power in 1999 are mobilizing on the Internet to oust him from office. At least two groups have pledged to transport thousands of voters by chartered planes and buses to a polling center run by Venezuela’s consulate in New Orleans so they can cast ballots on election day, Oct. 7.
Just 2 percent of Venezuelans in Florida voted for the self-declared socialist leader in his 2006 landslide victory, official results show, meaning that expatriates may provide an edge to opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski in a tight race. Still, for the largest community of Venezuelans living outside their homeland, exercising the right to vote has been hampered by Chavez’s decision to close Venezuela’s consulate in Miami over U.S. charges of spying.
“We’re happy to go and do our bit to support Capriles,” Rodriguez, who plans to travel with her older sister nursing a bad back, said in a phone interview. “It was deceitful of Chavez to close the consulate in Miami because he didn’t want us to vote.”
Every Vote Counts
Chavez, 58, frequently taunts the Venezuelan community in Miami, calling them “fugitives” in reference to opponents and one-time allies who’ve relocated there fleeing prosecution. Mirroring the decades-long movement against former Cuban President Fidel Castro in south Florida’s Latino community, Chavez says Miami has become a hotbed of conspiracy against his government.
While the 100,495 Venezuelans registered to vote abroad account for just 0.5 percent of the electorate, this election may be close enough for expatriates to alter the outcome, according to Gustavo Rojas, the director of political and economic research company Polinomics.
Pollsters are split on who leads in the race, though none shows Chavez dominating like he did in 2006, when he won with 63 percent. Capriles had 48.1 percent support against 46.2 percent for Chavez in a survey taken at the end of August by Caracas- based polling company Consultores 21.
In another poll taken between Aug. 16 and Sept. 5 by Caracas-based Datanalisis, Chavez had 49.4 percent compared with 39 percent support for the former governor of Miranda state among people sure to vote, Luis Vicente Leon, president of the firm, said today at an event in Caracas. Chavez’s lead narrowed from 15 percentage points in an earlier poll, he said. The poll surveyed 1,600 people and has a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.
“This could be a very, very close race, so when we talk about Miami we’re talking about a very important number of voters,” Rojas said by phone from Caracas. “Fundamentally, these are people who left Venezuela because they feel Chavez’s government has closed opportunities.”
Eduardo Silva, a professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans, disagreed, saying in an e-mail that there aren’t enough voters registered in Miami to change election results.
Consultores 21 didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
One initiative to get out the vote is Aerovotar.com, whose co-founder Andres Casanova said in a phone interview that he will fly as many as 1,114 voters free of charge, including Hernandez and her sister, to New Orleans. Another group, VotoDondeSea, which means “I Vote Anywhere” in Spanish, aims to provide discount bus fare to the city for 1,100 people.
Both groups say they are non-partisan and accept donations from members of all political leanings, though neither disclosed who their financial backers are. Organizations are also mobilizing voters to travel to New York, Chicago and other U.S. cities where Venezuela maintains consulates. None plan to travel to Venezuela.
Capriles, while not actively campaigning in Miami, has highlighted the importance of the overseas vote.
“The Venezuelans there aren’t fugitives, they’re mainly young Venezuelans who went looking for work -- who are spending money they don’t have to go and vote,” Capriles said in a Sept. 22 interview while campaigning in the city of Valencia. “That’s a gesture you have to acknowledge. Every vote is important.”
Venezuela’s National Electoral Council decided against opening a voting center in Miami after Chavez closed the consulate in January in retaliation for the U.S.’s expulsion of the consul there on allegations of spying.
The Information Ministry didn’t respond to e-mails and telephone calls from Bloomberg News seeking comments on whether the government was trying to prevent voters in Miami from casting ballots.
Energizing the anti-Chavez vote is the fact that for the first time Venezuela’s opposition has united behind a single candidate.
That fervor is on display in the city of Doral, which is adjacent to Miami and home to so many Venezuelans that it has earned the nickname “little Caracas.” Patrons of a restaurant there called El Arepazo munch on Venezuelan corn cakes known as arepas and guzzle guanabana juice while watching Capriles campaign live on television. The eatery sells bracelets and bumper stickers bearing Capriles’ name, as well as the yellow, blue and red baseball cap in the colors of Venezuela’s flag that have become the candidate’s staple on the campaign trail.
‘Decade of Chavez’
“People are exhausted after more than a decade of Chavez,” said Luis Alberto Schilling, the 57-year-old owner of El Arepazo. “I’ve never seen such enthusiasm to get out and vote.”
Chavez, who says that he’s recovered from an undisclosed form of cancer and fit to rule for another six year term, hasn’t shown any sign he’s worried about the expatriate vote tilting the balance in a close election. Instead, he said in televised comments Sept. 5 that it’s “absolutely impossible” for him to lose the election.
If he does prevail, Chavez said earlier this month in a press conference that he expects more Venezuelans to leave the country in disagreement with his plans to intensify his 21st century socialist revolution.
Chavez is being helped in his re-election bid by a 30 percent increase in public spending in real terms during the first half of 2012, as the government hands out homes and funds social programs that are the cornerstone of his re-election campaign. As a result of the spending boom, gross domestic product in South America’s largest oil producer expanded 5.4 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier.
Still, the spending boom combined with a fixed exchange rate have put pressure on consumer prices, giving Venezuela the highest inflation of 102 economies tracked by Bloomberg after Belarus and Iran. Annual inflation has eased for nine straight months, slowing to 18.1 percent in August.
The country’s borrowing costs are the highest among major emerging markets, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global Index. The extra yield that investors demand to hold Venezuelan debt over U.S. Treasuries narrowed 16 basis points, or 0.16 percentage point, to 969 at 10:20 a.m. in Caracas, according to the index.
City planners in New Orleans expect as many as 20,000 Venezuelans to descend on the Big Easy to vote, Brooke Smith, the city’s director of strategic partnerships in charge of providing logistical support, said in a telephone interview.
Officials at the Venezuelan consulate in New Orleans declined to comment when asked by Bloomberg to discuss preparations. Venezuelans living abroad cannot vote by mail.
Unlike many Latin Americans who’ve immigrated to the U.S. seeking to escape poverty, Venezuelans in south Florida are often wealthy enough to invest in businesses and buy homes, Rojas said. They also are seeking safety after the murder rate nearly doubled since Chavez took power to 45 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, the highest in South America, according to the United Nations’ latest figures.
Alex Aranda, a Venezuelan resident of Miami who will travel 32 hours by bus with VotoDondeSea, says support for Capriles in Miami is at a fever pitch and that he looks forward to a party- like atmosphere on the bus and the chance to visit Louisiana’s largest city.
“Everybody seems to be really pumped up about Capriles, and my perception is that he’s got a good chance,” said Aranda, who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years. “A lot of people in Miami feel betrayed and will vote to punish Chavez. We like Capriles, but it also was very unfair to us when they closed the consulate.”
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