Venezuelan Connie Pinero discusses her country's elections in Coral Springs, Fla. Venezuela's government closed the Miami consulate and told Venezuelans to vote in New Orleans for the presidential election. / J Pat Carter, AP
NEW ORLEANS - Black and gold - symbols of the New Orleans Saints football team - are usually the colors splashed across this city each Sunday.
But this weekend they may be overrun by the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag, as thousands of Venezuelan citizens living in the U.S. descend on New Orleans to vote in their country's presidential election.
As foreign nationals, they're allowed to cast their votes through a U.S. based-consulate for their home country - and normally, they would be voting through the consulate in Miami, which has the largest community of Venezuelans in the U.S. They have to make the 860-mile journey to New Orleans, though, after the Venezuelan government in January closed the Miami consulate.
The consulate was shuttered after U.S. officials expelled a Venezuelan diplomat under suspicion of nefarious activities, said Tulane University political science professor Eduardo Silva. The Venezuelan government then assigned all expats voting in Miami to vote in New Orleans.
City officials are expecting between 5,000 and 6,000 flag-waving expat Venezuelans to stream into the city - by charter bus, private planes or car rides with friends - to cast their vote for their country's next president.
"New Orleans is used to street parades and celebrating and showing a lot of passion," said Mark Romig of the city's tourism promotion agency. "We expect to see a lot of that."
The race in Venezuela has become an increasingly tight matchup between incumbent Hugo Chávez, who has been president for nearly 14 years, and the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles.
New Orleans is prepping for the crush of enthusiasts. City tourist officials sent e-mails last month to hotels and restaurants alerting them of the coming crowds. Election-day polling activities were moved from the small downtown Venezuelan consulate to the lobby of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and New Orleans Police officers will handle crowd and traffic control.
Even the Archdiocese of New Orleans is getting into the welcoming spirit: St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter on Sunday will host a Venezuelan priest to give a Spanish-language mass to the visitors and pray for peaceful elections.
Nearly 20,000 Venezuelans are registered to vote in Miami, Silva said. But only around 3,500 of those are expected to reach New Orleans to vote. Several hundred more from Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Louisiana will also travel here to vote, he said.
Those voting in New Orleans represent less than 1% of the total number of registered voters in Venezuela and will likely not impact election results, Silva said. Still, it's a passionate issue for them, many of whom left the country because of Chávez's policies and are eager to vote for Capriles, he said.
Through her Miami-based group, Voto Donde Sea, or "I Vote Anywhere," Vanessa Duran, 22, organized a fleet of charter buses to bring more than 1,000 fellow Venezuelans to New Orleans at discounted rates.
"We want to prove that a Venezuelan can overcome obstacles," Duran said. "No matter what, we're going to vote."
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