* Venezuelans go extra mile to vote after Miami consulate shut
* Many paid their own way to vote
* Widespread disappointment with result
By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Thousands of Venezuelan expatriates living in the United States traveled to New Orleans on Sunday to vote in their country’s election but then had a long, sad journey home after President Hugo Chavez, a man many of them despise, won comfortably.
They flew to New Orleans on charter and commercial flights, or rode for hours in caravans of buses and cars, after Chavez closed Venezuela’s consulate in Miami earlier this year.
Most of the expatriates likely voted for Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles.
“We feel proud that we made the effort. Unfortunately the result isn’t what we hoped for,” said Becky Prado, a Miami school teacher who left Venezuela in 2002, four years after Chavez was elected president.
Prado traveled 16 hours by bus from Miami to vote and spoke by phone late Sunday on her way home. “We watched the results on our phones. There was crying. It’s not a happy journey,” she said. “There’s some whisky at the back of the bus.”
Earlier in the day a long line of Venezuelans stretched several blocks outside a voting center set up at a New Orleans convention center, hoping to end Chavez’s 14-year rule.
Many sang the Venezuelan national anthem and waved the country’s flag as they waited. Cheers erupted each time another 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 10,799 votes cast by Venezuelans in Miami, according to election 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 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, Louisiana, said, “We will feel a sense of defeat, but also a sense of accomplishment in that we voted and did what we could.”