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Venezuela's Chavez launches own purge of Florida voters

ANGEL CASTILLO JR., Florida Voices Staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 04:19 PM

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While Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Obama Administration argue in court about Scott's efforts to purge ineligible voters, Venezuela's leftist president is implementing his own purge of Florida voters without judicial interference.

President Hugo Chavez refuses to re-open the only polling place, formerly in Miami, where Venezuelans residing in Florida could have cast votes in the Oct. 7 presidential election.

Chavez, 57, is running for re-election in the South American oil-producing nation on behalf of the ruling United Socialist Party. He seeks another six-year term against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, 39, a former state governor. Chavez, who is suffering from cancer, has been president since 1999. If re-elected, he pledges to reach "the point of no return" and complete the "irreversible transition toward socialism" in Venezuela, a country of 28 million people.

The Miami consulate served as an authorized polling place for Venezuelan citizens living in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. About 215,000 Venezuelans live in the United States, the bulk of them in Florida. Some 23,000 were registered to vote at the Miami consulate, and political observers estimate as many as 90 percent were anti-Chavez.

However, after Venezuela's consul in Miami was accused of conspiring with Cuba and Iran to commit Internet attacks against U.S. targets, she was expelled and in January, Chavez closed the Miami consulate.

It is now known the closing was less about diplomatic retaliation and more about seizing a convenient opportunity to interfere with Chavez's opponents in Miami. The closing was done to "affect the state of Florida and … create chaos among our feverish Miamians," according to a subsequently disclosed email by the Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States.

On June 8, Venezuela's National Electoral Council announced that all Venezuelans previously eligible to vote in Miami will have to travel to New Orleans – at their own expense – if they want to vote. The cheapest roundtrip fare between Miami and New Orleans for election weekend is more than $200 by air or bus. By car the trip is about 864 miles and a 15-hour drive each way. Of course, hotels and meals, or gasoline – as well as travel time – will be additional expenses.

"The transfer to New Orleans seriously harms our right to vote," said Gisela Parra, a former Venezuelan judge who was granted political asylum in 2006 and is now a vocal leader of the Chavez opposition in Miami. "The NEC's decision is totally unacceptable, it violates the constitution, the election laws, and international treaties."

Parra stated that unless the NEC promptly reverses its decision and allows voting in Miami, the Venezuelan opposition will seek injunctive relief before the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an agency of the OAS.

Unfortunately for the Venezuelan opposition, in the election game of chess, Chavez already anticipated that move. In an April 30 speech, he said he planned to have Venezuela soon withdraw from membership in the ICHR. "How long must we live under that Sword of Damocles?" lamented Chavez. 

Angel Castillo, Jr., a former reporter and editor for the New York Times and The Miami Herald, practices employment law in Miami.

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