- Associated Press - Sunday, September 30, 2012

MIAMI ‐ By bus and car, commercial flight and charter, U.S.-based Venezuelans are traveling en masse to New Orleans in the coming days, spending hundreds of dollars and in some cases more than a day of their time to cast a vote in their country’s presidential election.

The government of President Hugo Chavez earlier this year closed the country’s consulate in Miami, where most Venezuelans living in the U.S. have cast ballots in the past. It later said voters would have to travel to the Big Easy if they want to participate in the Oct. 7 vote.

It’s a hardship in terms of time and money for many potential voters. But some, especially those who want to stop Mr. Chavez from being re-elected after 13 years in power, are determined to make the trip anyway.

Carolina Guevara, a 21-year-old college student, plans to take the 15-hour bus ride from Miami to New Orleans, an 870-mile trek.

“We want to demonstrate to the government that even if they put obstacles in our path, we will practice our right to vote,” said Miss Guevara, who hopes to return to Venezuela after completing her political science studies at Miami Dade College.

Most Venezuelans in the U.S. are professionals who left their country after the socialist Mr. Chavez became president in 1999. The number of Venezuelans in the U.S. burgeoned from 91,500 in 2000 to 215,000 in 2010, according to the 2010 Census.

The Venezuelan government closed its Miami mission after the State Department expelled consul Livia Acosta amid an investigation into recordings that seemed to implicate her in an Iranian plot for a cyberattack 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. Most Venezuelan voters in the U.S. live in the Miami area, and the vast majority of those are critical of the Chavez government.

After the Miami mission closed, Venezuelan election officials said that voters registered there would have to cast ballots in New Orleans, where the next-nearest consulate is located. Venezuelan opposition leaders accused the government of trying to disenfranchise voters, a charge officials denied.

Tibisay Lucena, president of Venezuela’s Elections Council, countered that voters registered in Miami “were relocated using the same criteria used inside the country, telling them to go to the nearest polling station.”

Beatriz Olavarria, who leads a commission created by the opposition alliance to distribute voter information and mobilize observers, said she hopes at least half of the voters registered in Miami will cast ballots in New Orleans. “Something tells me that many people will get on board at the last minute,” she said.

Ms. Olavarria, who has volunteered in Miami during past Venezuelan elections, created the website www.Miami7octubre.com, to provide information about the New Orleans vote.