Editor’s Note: On Sunday, Venezuelan citizens all over the world learned Hugo Chavez would be their president for another six years. He won 54 percent of the vote, his narrowest margin yet. But there is more to the story: Florida’s 89.1 WUFT-FM’s Luis Giraldo traveled with a group of Venezuelan immigrants who journeyed 16 hours from south and central Florida to New Orleans — where the closest consulate was located — to exercise their right to vote.
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Around midnight on Saturday a group of Venezuelan-born immigrants stood waiting in Gainesville for a ride.
Some were young college students dancing to the rhythm of salsa while others, much older, sat quietly contemplating. They passed around their yellow, blue and red flag with the seven stars in a crescent at its heart.
They were smiling, ready for what some called the biggest day of their lives.
Their bus arrived shortly after a big red charter, already packed with people who were also enrobed with items that proclaimed pride in Venezuela.
John Esser, 79, had been ready for this trip for a long time.
“Before coming over here, I spent like three days preparing the trip, and I didn’t want to miss it, and I don’t know why but I just could not wait to get over here,” he said.
Off they went, traveling nine hours. Some had already been on the road for six.
Throughout the night when people weren’t sleeping, they shared stories, sang songs, even had a birthday cake celebration for one of their own.
6 a.m.: The bus pulled up to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans and dropped off the Venezuelan immigrants.
People had been lining up since midnight, anxiously awaiting their time to vote at a makeshift precinct at the lobby and ticket office right outside the door. A line went from hall “A” to hall “K,” filled with masses of people, all eligible to vote.
Radames Olivares played music as he waited.
“We need Venezuela to know that we are here for Venezuela we actually want to express what we feel and that’s what we are here for,” he said.
People everywhere said they wanted to make a change, that they didn’t want the Venezuela of now, but the one they remembered. It was one one they had left but never forgotten.
Maria Alejandra Saens, who moved to the U.S. a little more than a year ago, broke down crying when she brought up home.
“I want to be with my family, you know, it’s hard to be here in the United States alone because, yes we make a lot of friends, we make a family of friends, but the real family is the one we left behind,” Saens said.
Saens traveled this far because the Miami consulate closed earlier this year, censoring thousands of votes of a heavily Venezuelan-populated Florida. But that didn’t bother them. They were here. They were ready to take a stand.
“We have tried and done many things and (Hugo Chavez) always controls everything,” said Barry Laughlin. “But that’s the idea. To keep voting against him and trying to get a proper government in Venezuela, and a future for all our children, and all our grandchildren and all of that.”
Veronica Betancourt waited four hours to vote.
“I feel awesome,” she said. “This is amazing. I feel like I actually did something. This is finally the moment; we are looking to see the results, but we know we did our part.”
They kept in contact with others, sharing information about the race.
“I just thought of my sister, which I want her to see the country I had because she came here really young, and I want her to feel and get to know the country I had before, and I just thought of her all the time,” Betancourt said.
3:43 p.m.: Veronica Reinhart received a message as she walked back to the bus.
“Just got a text from my aunt in Caracas who says that exit polls show Caprilles leading by three present,” she said. “So we are really happy about that.”
5 p.m.: After standing in line for hours, it was time to go back home.
Everyone in the bus was singing, some chanting for what seemed an imminent win by Enrique Caprilles.
Then things got quiet.
A woman at the front was suddenly screaming. Anguish poured from her voice as she yelled, “I would kill him for my family. I swear.”
Hugo Chavez had won a third time.