The Miami Herald
Mon, Aug. 16, 2004
Thousands flock to Miami to vote on Chávez

Venezuelans endured long lines as they waited to cast ballots in the referendum to recall President Hugo Chávez. The day was not trouble free.


Coming from as far away as the Carolinas, thousands of Venezuelans streamed into Miami's Coconut Grove Expo Center on Sunday and endured long lines under a sweltering sun to cast their votes in the referendum that asked whether populist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez should stay in office.

Mirroring the voting back home, the Miami polls were jam-packed and not completely trouble free: Many complained their names were missing from voter rolls or were banned from voting because of a controversial new requirement imposed by the Venezuelan government.

And, as in Venezuela, turnout was high: By 8 p.m., when the polls in Miami closed, 12,609 Venezuelans had voted, according to the Venezuelan Consulate.

In all, about 17,000 people were eligible to vote in the Miami consular district, which serves Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Activists opposed to Chávez blanketed the convention center with volunteers who collected complaints from more than 1,000 people saying they were unfairly turned away.

Even the Organization of American States, which helped monitor the vote in Venezuela, had two observers in Miami.

Opposition activist Graciela Monroy said complaints will be turned over to the OAS. Among them: Some people were told Sunday that they were registered to vote elsewhere.

Others protested a new requirement that Venezuelan voters living in the United States prove that they are here legally in order to vote.

''It is a fraud,'' Eucaris Veliz, 41, said after waiting four hours in line, only to be told by poll workers they had no record of her in their computers.

Miami Consul General Jose Antonio Hernández Borgo said all local voter-registration information had been sent to Venezuela's elections council.

Voters began lining up as early as 4 a.m. -- two hours before the polls opened. Lines zigzagged in and out of the convention center and snaked as far north as Kennedy Park, South Bayshore Drive and 22nd Avenue.

Hernández Borgo said his office employed more than 100 workers to assist with Sunday's vote.

He dismissed complaints that many at the tables were Chávez supporters, and noted that the consulate had hired an immigration lawyer to help with voters' residency issues.

''I believe we did a good job,'' said Hernández Borgo, a former military academy classmate of Chávez. ``We didn't have any kind of incidents except delays at about 6 a.m. and practicing getting accustomed to the process.''

Reflecting the growing political clout of South Florida's Venezuelan community, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz made a brief appearance, as did several Miami city commissioners and Miami-Dade County mayoral candidate Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.

Several prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders appeared as well, including journalist and TV personality Orlando Urdaneta.

Most Venezuelans in South Florida oppose Chávez, who they fear is imposing a Cuba-style authoritarian regime in the world's No. 5 oil exporter. Chávez supporters claim he is the first president to care about Venezuela's majority poor.

A woman handed out stickers with the word ''Si'' -- a ''Yes'' vote for Chávez's ouster. They chanted 'Se va!,' or ''He's leaving!'' as a man pounded a wooden drum.

Many in line waved miniature Venuezuelan flags and others were draped in the flag's yellow, red and blue colors with white stars.

Some came from as far north as the Carolinas, and others from as close as a neighboring South Miami neighborhood where one two-story house on South Bayshore Drive had a life-size effigy of Chávez hanging from a front balcony with a noose around its neck.

But some voters were singing another song.

In a parking lot across from the center, about three dozen Chávez supporters gathered, singing ''Chávez won't go'' and holding up placards reading, ``Dignity, Sovereignty and True Freedom.''

''The people here in South Florida are upper middle class, and they do not represent the real Venezuelan people. They are a tiny minority who are used to having the power,'' said Nestor Sanchez, 29, a student at the Central University of Venezuela who came here for the vote.

Sanchez said his group's small number shouldn't suggest how the referendum would turn out.

''The opposition is going to win here,'' he said. "But we are going to win in Venezuela.''

Herald staff writers Rebecca Dellagloria and Erika Pesantes contributed to this report.