By Kevin Gray
MIAMI (Reuters) - Thousands of Venezuelan expatriates living in the United States are so eager to see President Hugo Chavez ousted from power that they plan to travel to New Orleans this week to vote against him.
"It's a small price to pay," said Jesus Lopez, a Venezuelan financial adviser who lives in Miami and says he will pay more than $500 to go and vote. "If I had to sell my watch, even the shirt off my back, to make this trip, I wouldn't think twice."
Many of the Venezuelans residing in the United States live in Florida and are vehement opponents of the socialist Chavez. They plan to travel on charter or commercial flights, or in caravans of buses and cars, to New Orleans to cast their ballot in the election on Sunday.
With polls suggesting the Venezuela election could be close, they hope their votes will help end Chavez's long rule.
For many, it is the only way to vote after Chavez this year ordered the closure of Venezuela's consulate in Miami, home to a large and growing Venezuelan community and normally the biggest voting center outside the country. Venezuela only allows in-person voting.
Chavez said he took the decision after the U.S. government expelled a Miami-based Venezuelan diplomat on allegations that she discussed potential cyber-attacks on the United States with Iranian and Cuban diplomats, a charge Chavez angrily denied.
His decision left around 20,000 Venezuelan registered voters living in the southeastern United States without a consulate in Miami. If they want to vote, they have to travel to the nearest consulate in New Orleans.
"What that challenge has done is unite us," said Manny Camargo, a Miami representative of a coalition of opposition parties backing Chavez's challenger, Henrique Capriles. "We are going to surprise them with the motivation of Venezuelans here."
Since Chavez came to power in 1999, tens of thousands of middle- and upper-class Venezuelans have fled the country, complaining of rising crime and dwindling economic opportunities at home. Many resettled in South Florida, joining a virulently anti-communist Cuban exile community.
Asked during a public appearance in June about the how the closure of the Miami consulate would affect voters there, Chavez replied, "I swear if there was something I could do to ensure everyone votes, I'd do it, but it's beyond my control."
'I'LL VOTE WHEREVER'
His government's reluctance to arrange an alternative site in Miami angered many Venezuelans, who responded with efforts to organize voters. One group created a Web site, Aerovotar.com, collecting donations to pay for several charter flights.
Another site, Votodondesea.com, Spanish for "I'll vote wherever," is offering $75 bus tickets for what is expected to be a 36-hour road trip round trip to vote in a New Orleans convention center.
Just how many people will ultimately travel remains unclear. The country has other consulates in Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco plus its embassy in Washington where Venezuelans in other parts of the United States can vote.
Nelly Guimand, a 57-year-old business consultant, said she plans to rent a van with at least 10 other people, and criticized Chavez for not making it easier for people to vote.
"This was absolutely premeditated ... The government knows Miami will overwhelmingly support the opposition," she said.
According to a 2010 U.S. Census, around 215,000 Venezuelans live in the United States, up from some 91,000 in 2000.
Miami is a fierce anti-Chavez bastion. In Venezuela's last presidential election in 2006, Chavez won just 2 percent of the 10,799 votes cast in the city, results from the country's election authority show.
Chavez said he was confident expat Venezuelans would find their own way to New Orleans. He tacitly acknowledged he didn't expect to win much of their support, but said it would not prevent him from clinching another six-year term in office.
"In the last election, how many millions of votes did we win by?" he asked. "Something like 3 million. I think the difference this time is going to be more than 4 million, maybe more."
"How many voters are in Miami?" he added with irony.
Becky Prado, a 34-year-old teacher who moved to Miami nine years ago, said she was still deciding whether to fly or take a bus. But she insisted the long trip would not deter her from voting against Chavez.
"That's the one weapon I have and I definitely want to use it," she said. "Even if I have to take a donkey to get there."
(Additional reporting by Evelyn Gruber in Miami, Editing by Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)