The rapidly-growing Venezuelan community in Central Florida sent a message home and to Florida and American politicians with a vote Sunday they said drew more than 28,000 people who waited hours in line at six poling places to vote overwhelmingly to condemn the government and policy of that country’s dictator Nicolás Maduro.
Led by radio show host William Diaz of Orlando, who also is Central Florida director of Mesa de la Unidad Democratica, a unified coalition of Venezuelan political parties, the straw poll more than quadrupled the turnout expected by organizers of Central Florida refugees and Venezuelan-American permanent residents and naturalized American citizens.
“Locally, we were prepared to get about 6,000 votes,” Diaz said at a press conference held Tuesday at the Saint Issac Jogues Catholic Church in southeast Orange County.
The referendum was quasi-official, as it was organized and directed internationally by the opposition parties within Venezuela,
Statewide almost 150,000 votes were cast Sunday, and 700,000 total internationally in the straw poll, said Venezuelan refugee Samuel Vilchez.
“The results are incredible,” Diaz said.
All but five of the 28,328 votes cast in Central Florida, backed by signatures, Venezuelan identification numbers and thumb prints, voted yes on three questions that essentially declared opposition to Maduro and called for restoration of the country’s previous constitution, Diaz said.
Whether that message might have any affect on Maduro and his government, Diaz and others gathered for a press conference announcing the results said it should announce to the world how strong and determined the refugee community is in Florida, particularly in Central Florida.
“I know and I understand we have a new voting power in Central Florida, the Venezuelans” said Luis Figueroa, an official with the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida who volunteered to be a poll observer.
“It was really motivating, it was inspiring, to see so many people passionate about their country, passionate about their freedom, passionate about their family members who are still back there, and hoping, some day, to go back to their country as a free country,” said state Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican.
The resulting turnout led to long lines, but people were patient and eager to vote, Figueroa said He said he knew one woman who waited in line more than six hours and was happy to do so. The polling places were set to close at 5 but at least one stayed open until 10 p.m. The organizers quickly ran out of ballots and kept nearby Office Depot and Staples very busy on Sunday, they said. Nearby restaurants like a Panera’s Bread were swamped.
Diaz and Vilchez said the Venezuelan community got plenty of assistance from non Venezuelans such as Plasencia and Figueroa, from Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and Anglo-Americans to run the polls on Sunday.
The vote also was a coming out for the strength and unity of the Venezuelan community, Diaz said. He said there were thousands of people who came who could not vote because they were too young, or because, for various reasons, they could not qualify, and estimated there were 50,000 people who showed up at the polling places. Therefore, he estimated 100,000 Venezuelans live in Central Florida.
“I was here on Sunday morning and I was completely floored by what I saw. It was incredible,” Plasencia said. “To see the number of people voting, from one country, in one day, I was awestruck.”
The rapid expansion of the Venezuelan community has been apparent to local officials. Earlier this month the Orange County Public Schools said Venezuela is now the top origin of transfer students from outside the United States, ahead of Puerto Rico. Likewise, Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph said his driver’s license bureaus have seen dramatic numbers of people from Venezuela seeking driver’s licenses.