DORAL, Fla. -- Wearing the colors of the Venezuelan flag and carrying pillows, thousands of Venezuelans began the journey from Miami to New Orleans to vote in their homeland's presidential election Sunday.
More than two dozen buses with an estimated 2,100 voters departed from Doral on Saturday. They chanted the name of the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, and played Venezuelan music. Others had coolers filled with food and drinks for the 16-hour drive.
"I feel this is something I must do," said Vivian Koenig, 21, before getting on a bus.
With just six weeks of preparation, Venezuelans in Florida have raised money and arranged travel. Aside from bus, many are traveling by car and plane. Organizers said they expected a turnout similar or higher than that of October, when 8,500 Venezuelans cast ballots in New Orleans.
"It's been pretty amazing how people have responded since the first announcement that Chavez died," said Gilda Sollami of Voto Donde Sea, a group of students and young professionals that promotes voting outside Venezuela. "They showed a lot of interest."
President Hugo Chavez died in March after a two-year battle with cancer. His chosen successor, interim President Nicolas Maduro, is favored to win, but opinion polls show Capriles has narrowed Maduro's advantage, rallying voters frustrated with chronic food shortages, inflation, power outages and surging crime that many blame on Chavez's mismanagement.
The largest concentration of Venezuelans in the U.S. resides in South Florida. Most were stridently anti-Chavez and were expected to vote for Capriles. They must travel to New Orleans to cast their ballots because Chavez closed the Miami consulate in January 2012. Some 20,000 Venezuelans were registered to vote from the Miami consulate.
It is unlikely their numbers will decide the election; last year, Capriles lost by 1.6 million votes; there are 38,000 Venezuelan voters in the U.S.
"You never know," said Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. "This is an election under an unusual circumstance. Surprises happen."
Sollami said Voto Donde Sea had arranged for 32 buses to depart from Miami on Saturday, seven more than during the October presidential election. Raising money was challenging, and the group hasn't been able to offer as many free tickets as last year.
"It's very hard," Sollami said. "It's a very long and complicated move going inland."
Most of the buses planned to arrive to New Orleans by early Sunday and head back immediately after the vote. Sollami herself is traveling to Venezuela to vote because she was not able to change her registration site before the Miami consulate closed.
"People are motivated," she said.
The Miami suburb of Doral -- affectionately known as "Doralzuela" because of its large number of Venezuelan residents, restaurants and businesses -- also is preparing for Sunday night, when the election is called. Mayor Luigi Boria, who is traveling by plane Sunday to New Orleans and returning to Florida, said Doral expects a large number of people will gather if Capriles is announced as the winner.
Boria donated two buses and two airplane tickets for Venezuelans to travel from Miami to New Orleans. He said he has encouraged others to vote and push their relatives in Venezuela to do the same.
"If we're traveling 1,500 miles just to exercise our right to vote, we have to tell the people in Venezuela they should do much more," he said.
The atmosphere was festive in Doral on Saturday as Venezuelans gathered in a public park to board the buses, even as rain poured down in the early afternoon. A crowd of people not traveling to New Orleans waved flags as the buses left, wishing them well.
Francisco and Ella Montanez, ages 80 and 79, said they were going to New Orleans by bus for the future of their country.
"So that our country can return to what it was," Ella Montez said. "For unity. Without hate. Without bitterness."