By Associated Press - Saturday, April 13, 2013

DORAL, Fla. — Thousands of Venezuelans have begun making their way from Miami to New Orleans by car, bus and plane to vote in their homeland’s presidential election Sunday.

With just six weeks of preparation, Venezuelans in Florida have organized to raise money, contract buses and arrange car pools. Organizers said they expected a turnout similar or higher than that of last October, when 8,500 Venezuelans cast ballots in New Orleans.

“It’s been pretty amazing how people have responded since the first announcement that Chavez died,” said Gilda Sollami of Voto Donde Sea, a group of students and young professionals that promotes voting outside Venezuela. “They showed a lot of interest.”

President Hugo Chavez died in March after a two-year battle with cancer. His chosen successor, interim President Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win, but one poll shows that challenger Henrique Capriles has narrowed Maduro’s advantage, campaigning against a government that has faced chronic food shortages, inflation, power outages and surging crime.

The largest concentration of Venezuelans in the U.S. resides in South Florida. Most were stridently anti-Chavez and are expected to vote for Capriles. They must travel to New Orleans to cast their ballots because Chavez closed the Miami consulate in January 2012. Some 20,000 Venezuelans were registered to vote from the Miami consulate.

It is unlikely their numbers will decide the election; last year, Capriles lost by 1.6 million votes; there are 38,000 Venezuelan voters in the U.S.

“I don’t see any reason to believe that this election will be any closer than the one back in October,” said Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. “But it’s a good thing when citizens vote in elections. You never know. At the end of the day, the votes will have to be counted. This is an election under an unusual circumstance. Surprises happen.”

Sollami said Voto Donde Sea has arranged for 32 buses to depart from Miami on Saturday, seven more than during the October presidential election. Raising money was challenging, and the group hasn’t been able to offer as many free tickets as last year.

“It’s very hard,” Sollami said. “It’s a very long and complicated move going inland.”

The trip itself is 16 hours by car, and most of the buses were planning to arrive early Sunday and head back immediately after the vote. Sollami herself is traveling to Venezuela to vote because she was not able to change her registration site before the Miami consulate closed.

“People are motivated,” she said.

The Miami suburb of Doral — affectionately known as “Doralzuela” because of its large number of Venezuelan residents, restaurants and businesses — also is preparing for Sunday night, when the election is called. Mayor Luigi Boria, who is traveling by plane Sunday to New Orleans and then returning to Florida, said Doral expects a large number of people will gather if Capriles is announced as the winner.

Boria donated two buses and two airplane tickets for Venezuelans to travel from Miami to New Orleans. He said he has been encouraging others to vote and push their relatives in Venezuela to do the same.

“If we’re traveling 1,500 miles just to exercise our right to vote, we have to tell the people in Venezuela they should do much more,” he said.

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