MIAMI –– Against a backdrop of fear of reprisals back home, reports of human rights abuses and widespread media censorship, Venezuelan Americans in South Florida are crying foul over alleged electoral obstructions ahead of upcoming presidential elections in their homeland.
Charges of betrayal and violations of international law have fueled distrust and anger among Venezuelan Americans who say that the decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to close a consulate in Miami earlier this year threatens to disenfranchise them.
The closure — the result of a diplomatic tit-for-tat involving the State Department — leaves an estimated 20,000 registered Venezuelan voters in South Florida and thousands more in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina with no option but to travel to the Venezuelan consulate in New Orleans to cast their ballots if they want a say in the Oct. 7 election.
Observers argued the consulate’s closure was meant to punish Florida’s vocal critics of the Chavez regime and to improve his chances of adding a third term to the presidency he first assumed in 1999.
“This is inexcusable, not opening a voting center here in Miami,” said Beatriz Olavarria, who is handling logistics for what may be a large-scale effort to transport registered voters from South Florida to New Orleans, home to the nearest Venezuelan consulate some 1,000 miles away.
Olavarria, a graduate of Rosarian Academy, a Catholic prep school in West Palm Beach, Fla., said an appeal of the decision was denied. She said she does not know how many Venezuelan voters would be willing to commit the time and resources to travel out of state to cast their vote.
However, Florida’s Venezuelan community wants to send a message that it is not apathetic about the country’s elections, she added.
“It is their duty to do and right to vote,” Olavarria said. “Outside of Venezuela it is a genuine vote and no one is afraid to vote, but inside Venezuela people are terrified of voting and the consequences it may have for your life and work. So we do have a responsibility to act here in this comfort zone.”
The voter delegation is planning to meet for a Mass and a send-off to New Orleans Sept. 28 at the Shrine Our Lady Of Charity in Miami. Buses are expected to depart two days before the election. Some voters are planning to fly or make private travel arrangements.
Venezuelan Americans said the upcoming election is crucial for most of Latin America because Venezuela has been pivotal in the region for more than a decade as the Chavez government has forged strong ties with new left-leaning presidencies in neighboring countries and has maintained strong ties with Cuba.
“The churches are asking people to vote and asking the Venezuelan government to respect the will of the people,” said Elio Aponte, president of the Organization of Venezuelans in Exile. He came to the U.S. seeking asylum after Venezuela declared ORVEZ to be a terrorist organization.
More of the estimated 200,000 Venezuelans in the South would register to vote were it not for the fact that they recently were asked by Venezuelan officials to provide personal information outside the norm as they inquired about registering to vote, Aponte said. The fear is that such information could be used by the Venezuelan government to block their asylum requests in the U.S., he explained.
Gisela Parra, a former judge in Venezuela who was granted political asylum in the United States in 2006 who is now a vocal leader of the Chavez opposition in Miami, told CNS that Venezuela’s decision to close the regional consulate violates the country’s constitution, election laws and international treaties.
“The constitution of Venezuela sets that the electoral of Venezuela is independent and autonomous, and therefore the closure of the consulate shouldn’t prevent that they place a polling station in Miami,” she said. “It is unconstitutional and illegal, and also a serious violation of political rights, political participation and the suffrage of Venezuelan voters.”
Ernesto Ackerman, who conducts voting drives for the nonprofit Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, acknowledged that 20,000 votes may not affect the election’s outcome, but that it is important for people to cast ballots. He also expressed concern about the disruption that the consulate’s closure has caused for many business and the daily life of Venezuelans seeking visas and other assistance.
“I used do a million dollars in sales a year in Venezuela and now I am doing $100,000, but I really don’t care: I want democracy and liberty for my country,” he said.
“I predict that the people in Venezuela will go out to vote, but what will happen after? Tyranny doesn’t go away, and so the challenge will be to recuperate democracy,” he said.