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Luis Cordova is seen on Friday in the kitchen at Arepa, a Venezuelan restaurant in Toronto. Having moved from Caracas this year, he will be voting at the Venezuelan consulate in Toronto this weekend. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Luis Cordova is seen on Friday in the kitchen at Arepa, a Venezuelan restaurant in Toronto. Having moved from Caracas this year, he will be voting at the Venezuelan consulate in Toronto this weekend. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

BALLOTS ABROAD

Venezuelan expats in Canada mobilize to vote for regime change Add to ...

Luis Cordova will vote in what may be the most important election of his life this weekend, though he will be casting his ballot almost 4,000 kilometres away from where it will be counted.

A record number of Venezuelan expatriates in Canada have registered to vote in Sunday’s election, which pits Venezuela’s polarizing President of 14 years, Hugo Chavez, against opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

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With polls showing a tight race, members of the diaspora are mobilizing to get to the nearest polling station this weekend, no matter what the expense.

About 5,000 people – higher than any previous election – have registered to vote in Canada, said a spokeswoman from the Venezuelan embassy in Ottawa. While the latest census figures from 2006 peg Canada’s Venezuelan population at 10,270, scholars and community organizers estimate it has since risen to more than 20,000.

Venezuelans in Canada had until April of this year to register to vote at one of the four polling stations: the consulates in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and the embassy in Ottawa. About 400 people – roughly half the Venezuelan expat population in Alberta – are flying or driving to Vancouver this weekend to vote.

“The importance of this election is it is the first time in 14 years that we have a candidate that can defeat Hugo Chavez,” said Josue Ramirez, the Calgary-based organizer of the Venezuelan elections operative in Vancouver and a campaigner for Mr. Capriles.

Since April, he has been organizing the mass trip to Vancouver for fellow Albertans. Venezuelans in the United States have organized similar trips to New Orleans on a larger scale after the government closed its consulate in Miami, home to the largest Venezuelan population in the country.

Most of the Venezuelans in Canada today arrived in the years that followed Mr. Chavez’s first election victory in 1998. While the socialist leader won support from his country’s poorest citizens by giving them free housing and improved health care, his social spending has also coincided with high inflation and his time in power has seen a dramatic increase in violent crime.

Last year, in fact, was the country’s most violent in history – 19,336 people were killed, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, which receives both government and non-government funding. There were 7,960 homicides in 2001.

The high murder rate, which surpasses Mexico’s, is why Mr. Cordova, a 41-year-old chef, is voting at the Venezuelan consulate in Toronto on Sunday. He, his wife and daughter left their home in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, two years ago. Mr. Cordova said the country, under Mr. Chavez’s rule, wasn’t a place he wished to raise his daughter.

Once, when they were stuck in traffic on the highway in Caracas, a man on a motorcycle robbed them of their wallets and cellphones at gunpoint, Mr. Cordova said. Six months later, the family immigrated to Canada.

“This is a regular situation,” he said. He hopes things will improve for his parents and brother, who still reside in Venezuela, if Mr. Capriles takes office.

Carla Duran, another Venezuelan expat, said her husband had a similar brush with the violence that has come to define the country. Before they arrived in Canada in 2004, he was the victim of a carjacking.

“They robbed him, they took him with the truck and they just dumped him in the street with no glasses. He wasn’t able to see,” said Ms. Duran, 36. They never reported the crime, believing the “corrupt” police force wouldn’t do anything.

“You know that nobody was going to help,” she said.

Casting a vote here for Mr. Chavez’s challenger is much easier than doing so in Venezuela, Ms. Duran said. After the last election in 2006, in which Mr. Chavez won 63 per cent of the vote, Ms. Duran said her brother lost his job as a military pilot when it came to light he had voted for the opposition.

In Alberta, much of the Venezuelan population consists of oil workers who had worked in the industry in their native country before the 2002 strike, which led to massive layoffs. Concerns over the country’s mismanagement of its economy and its dependence on oil are driving many expats from that region to the polls, Mr. Ramirez said.

While support among Venezuelan expats in North American appears to skew heavily in favour of Mr. Capriles, Victor Rivas, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Toronto, says Mr. Chavez has supporters of his own living abroad.

“You do have a number of expats who were here before the 2002-2003 situation with the oil companies … they will be divided among ideological lines,” he said.

“[Some] who have family over there and friends and who also live here are quite sympathetic to the changes the government has made.”

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