MIAMI – Venezuelans expatriates in Florida are not giving up so easily. They want President Hugo Chavez ousted in next week’s election and are literally willing to travel great lengths if they have to.
Two groups are offering to transport thousands of voters by chartered planes and buses to a polling center in New Orleans, determined to neutralize Venezuela’s National Electoral Council’s decision to close its Miami consulate back in January. Being the largest community of Venezuelans living outside their homeland, and this being Chavez’s toughest election battle yet, they think they can make a difference.
Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles’ poll numbers have been climbing steadily in the closing days of the campaign, with some pollsters even predicting Chavez’s defeat or a virtual tie.
Gustavo Rojas, director of Caracas-based research company Polinomics, told Business Week that even though 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.
One initiative to get out the vote is Aerovotar.com, which plans to fly as many as 1,114 voters to New Orleans free of charge, according to the magazine. Another group, VotoDondeSea, is offering discount bus fares to the city for 1,100 people. Organizations are also mobilizing voters to travel to New York, Chicago and other U.S. cities where Venezuela maintains consulates.
Political experts agree that this time around the anti-Chavez vote is invigorated by the fact that, for the first time in 14 years, Venezuela’s opposition has united behind a single candidate.
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 Consultores 21.
This week, another poll by Varianzas indicated a virtual tie, with a 49.7 percent saying they plan to vote for Chavez and 47.7 percent siding with Capriles. The margin of error of this poll is 2 percent.
The latest poll by Datanalisis, one of Venezuela's most respected polling firms, was also released this week and found that about 49 percent said they intend to vote for Chavez and about 39 percent said they plan to vote for Capriles. About 11 percent didn't reveal a preference.
“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 to Business Week. “Fundamentally, these are people who left Venezuela because they feel Chavez’s government has closed opportunities.”