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Venezuelans vote on Sunday. They will decide whether President Hugo Chavez remains in power or whether he will be forced to step aside in favor of a challenger, Henrique Capriles. Polls indicate the most serious electoral challenge Chavez has faced since taking office almost 14 years ago. This election is mobilizing large numbers of voters in Venezuela and also, as NPR's Greg Allen found, in the United States.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are nearly 20,000 Venezuelans who are registered to vote in Florida. Most have arrived here in the last decade, since Hugo Chavez took power. He upended the old power structure, installing a socialist government that seized property and nationalized industries. One of the expatriates is 94-year-old Lophanie Bertrand. She says she's determined to cast her ballot Sunday to oust Chavez.
LOPHANIE BERTRAND: (Through translator) Because people are suffering there. There's a lot of suffering.
ALLEN: Chavez has caused a lot of pain, she says, and poor people in Venezuela don't have enough to eat.
Bertrand arrived in Miami several years ago, accompanying her daughter, a political activist and Chavez opponent who received political asylum. But like all Venezuelans in Miami, to vote on Sunday, Bertrand will have to travel nearly nine hundred miles to New Orleans. That's because earlier this year, Chavez closed the Venezuelan consulate in Miami. He took that action after the U.S. State Department expelled the Venezuelan Consul, charging that she was involved in a cyber-terrorism plot.
Venezuelans here believe the consul was closed in a deliberate effort to disenfranchise them, to discourage them from voting. Bertrand now lives in Miami with another daughter, Giselle Beauvoir. But Beauvoir says when she began investigating the cost of traveling by air with her mother to New Orleans to vote, she realized it would be too expensive.
GISELLE BEAUVOIR: I was so sad and, you know, thinking about what the best to do. Because I could tell my mother, Listen, in this election, you aren't going to be able to vote. It's the most important election, I think, in her life.
ALLEN: Fortunately for Beauvoir, and her 94-year-old mother, they'll be flying to New Orleans on Sunday free because of a group of volunteers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken)
ALLEN: In a conference room in downtown Miami, seven young Venezuelans are working the phones and their laptops. They're part of AeroVotar, a group that's raised enough money to book six charter flights to New Orleans Sunday to help Venezuelans vote. The seats are being mostly filled by elderly and disabled, Venezuelans who may not be up to the 16 hour bus ride to New Orleans. It's a non-partisan group, but volunteer Alyssa Perez concedes the vast majority of those involved, in fact the vast majority of Venezuelans in the U.S., oppose Chavez.
ALYSSA PEREZ: We're out of our country for a reason, you know. And it's basically, well, because of the current government. So most of us want to be able to go back to our country, maybe not live there, but be able to go back and forth and to have our children go there. And we still have families, we have to fight for, there. So I think that is what got us all together, you know?
ALLEN: Some 1,100 Venezuelans will be flying from Miami on Sunday. Many more will travel in buses. In all, seven or eight thousand Venezuelans from Florida are expected to make the trip. And volunteer organizer, Beatriz Olavarria, says most will vote for Capriles. Unlike in Venezuela, Olavarria says voters in this country don't fear harassment when they cast their ballots.
BEATRIZ OLAVARRIA: The government will make sure that, you know, they will threaten you, they will scare you, they will, you know, do last minute things that you're going to think about it. Outside Venezuela, we don't have that. We're not going to be jobless because we go vote and so on and so forth. So it's a genuine vote that only wants the best for the country.
ALLEN: Olavarria's only concern now is whether the Venezuelan consulate in New Orleans will be able to handle several thousand determined Venezuelan voters.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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