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Tampa Venezuelans protest Chávez successor vote

About 50 protesters gathered April 18 at the University of Tampa to demand an audit of the presidential election held in Venezuela the month.

Courtesy of Juan Pinto

About 50 protesters gathered April 18 at the University of Tampa to demand an audit of the presidential election held in Venezuela the month.

TAMPA

The cousins held up pinkies stained purple with ink, marked reminders of their votes in Venezuela this month for the successor to deceased president Hugo Chávez.

Antonio Daher, 21, had traveled more than 1,300 miles, taking four planes to get to his home in Valencia, Venezuela.

It was his first time voting, said Daher, an economics major at the University of Tampa, who with a friend organized a rally last week on the grounds of UT.

"We need international recognition," he said.

About 50 people held signs and passed out fliers saying democracy is at risk in Venezuela. Days earlier, at least a dozen had traveled by bus 12 hours each way to vote in New Orleans, their nearest consulate. As the sun set, they moved to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and brought out pots and pans to bang in a form of street protest called cacerolazo.

They chanted for their candidate, Henrique Capriles, who came up short in the contested election that nearly divided the country. Instead, Nicolas Maduro, handpicked by Chávez before his death, was sworn in as president.

Capriles, popular in urban areas of Venezuela, called for a full audit of ballots, alleging thousands of irregularities at polling centers.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry subsequently told lawmakers that Washington was not ready to recognize Maduro and also called for a recount.

Protests erupted in Venezuelan streets in the days following the election, with several violent clashes killing eight people.

Watching from Tampa, where about 100 Venezuelans are enrolled at UT, Daher said Capriles stands for peace and the union of all Venezuelans.

Daher follows Capriles on Twitter.

"Capriles told people 'just knock on your pan — no guns,' " Daher said.

Daher said there's a struggle between social classes in Venezuela with socialists blaming rich people.

Florida is home to more Venezuelans than any other state, with a concentration in Miami.

An estimated 20,000 Venezuelans had been registered to vote in the Miami consulate when Chávez closed it in January 2012. They were reassigned to the New Orleans consulate.

Juan Pinto helped organize a bus that took 45 people from Tampa to New Orleans to vote.

Pinto, 51, lives in Wesley Chapel, which he said has become an enclave for Venezuelans. Pinto, a member of the Venezuelan Suncoast Association that formed more than 10 years ago, has unsuccessfully tried to get the Venezuelan consulate to come to Tampa to register voters.

He says the west-central coast of Florida is home to about 10,000 Venezuelans.

And although their votes were not counted in the final tally, the total international vote wouldn't be enough to tip the balance.

Shortly after the rally last week, the country's election authority agreed to review every ballot cast. Though many watching don't fully trust the process, they have not given up all hope.

"Not at all," Daher said. "Even though I know the reality. Hope is not lost."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Tampa Venezuelans protest Chávez successor vote 04/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 2:07pm]
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