By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Thousands of Venezuelans who live in the United States crowded outside a New Orleans convention center on Sunday to cast ballots in Venezuela's presidential election, with many hoping their vote will help drive President Hugo Chavez from power.
Many flew to New Orleans on charter and commercial flights or rode for hours in caravans of buses and cars, forced to travel at their own expense after Chavez closed Venezuela's consulate in Miami earlier this year.
Some spent hundreds of dollars to fly. Others endured a 16-hour one-way bus ride to vote in what polls suggest may be the opposition's strongest challenge yet to Chavez's 14-year rule.
"I'm tired but euphoric," said Dafne Blanco, a 39-year-old insurance agent from Miami who traveled by bus. "This our chance to change the direction of Venezuela."
A long line of Venezuelans stretched several blocks outside a voting center set up in New Orleans near the consulate.
Many sang the Venezuelan national anthem and waved the country's flag as they waited. Cheers erupted each time a bus carrying voters arrived.
Carolina Norgaard stood in line for 3 1/2 hours and likely had another hour to go before casting her vote but said the wait was worth it. "Today is the day we make the most important decision for our country," she said.
Middle- and upper-class Venezuelans, worried about rising crime and shrinking economic opportunities at home, have led an exodus of Venezuelan professionals in recent years.
According to a 2010 U.S. Census, around 215,000 Venezuelans live in the United States, an increase from 91,000 in 2000. A large number live in and around Miami, home to an expatriate community that is overwhelmingly opposed to Chavez.
In Venezuela's last presidential election in 2006, Chavez won just 2 percent of the nearly 10,799 votes cast by Venezuelans in Miami, according to elections officials.
Chavez ordered the closure of Venezuela's Miami consulate after the U.S. government expelled the top Venezuelan diplomat in the city amid allegations she discussed potential cyber-attacks against the United States with Iranian and Cuban diplomats. Chavez denied the charges.
His decision, however, meant 20,000 Venezuelan registered voters living in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina would have to travel on their own to New Orleans to the next closest consulate.
Many Miami-based Venezuelans opposed to Chavez responded by arranging charter flights and buses to mobilize voters.
Cristina Pocaterra, a Miami resident who works with a coalition of Venezuelan opposition parties supporting Chavez's challenger, Henrique Capriles, said organizers expected some 7,000 people to vote in New Orleans.
Leopoldo Rodriguez and his wife, Nina Rojas Rodriguez, traveled from Miami with their 4-year-old twin daughters.
He said the couple left Caracas in 2004 fed up with Chavez's socialist policies and what he described as their polarizing effect on the country. "We knew it was only going to get worse there," Rodriguez said.
He said they decided to forego an upcoming trip to Disney World to make the journey to New Orleans. The trip, with airfare, hotel and other costs, will likely cost them $2,000.
"If we don't support what we believe in, what's the point?" he said.
Asked how some might react if Chavez won, Anselmo Rodriguez, an insurance executive who lives in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, said, "We will feel a sense of defeat, but also a sense of accomplishment in that we voted and did what we could." (Writing by Kevin Gray)