Venezuela Holds Presidential Election But Main Opposition Is Boycotting It

May 19, 2018
Originally published on May 20, 2018 10:34 am

When Ariles López takes a break from her fruit stall and begins to describe her life in Venezuela, there is a moment when she chokes up and begins to cry.

That will not come as a surprise, when you hear her story.

López, who's 47, is among those Venezuelans who say they will vote in Sunday's election, despite a widely held view that it's a fraudulent exercise calculated to keep President Nicolás Maduro in power.

She is desperate for change, after a year of personal hardship that underscores the scale of the multilayered catastrophe that is engulfing Venezuela: hyperinflation, widespread hunger, deaths from preventable diseases, and a wave of deadly crime.

López's husband was killed last July at a gas station near the fruit and vegetable market in east Caracas where he once worked — and where she now runs their stall singlehandedly, selling mangos and plums.

She says he was accosted by two men trying to steal his cellphone. "I don't know if he struggled with them, but they shot him in the chest, and took his phone," she says. "He lasted five days in hospital, and then died."

A few months later, López's diabetic mother became ill and fell into a coma because she was unable to find medicines to control her blood sugar levels. López says she issued an appeal on Facebook, and eventually found someone in Caracas who had the right medication, and was willing to sell it. Her mother survived.

López pulls out her cellphone and proudly shows a photograph of a third family member: her 2-month-old granddaughter Brianna.

The other day, the baby developed a stomach sickness. It cost two-thirds of Venezuela's monthly minimum wage to buy a tiny jar of medicine, says López. "She's better now. But it's hard to get stuff for the baby. I'm very concerned."

Finding milk means getting up at 2 a.m. and joining one of the many food lines that snake along the streets of Caracas, she adds.

Stories of similar ordeals are common among Venezuelans, who are enduring an exhausting daily struggle to survive, coupled with constant anxiety and fear. For many, the worsening economic crisis and a deep distrust of the government seem to have corroded their appetite for — or faith in — politics. The run-up to the election has been remarkably lackluster.

Yet López has become determined to vote, even though she, too, doubts whether the election will be fair. She supports an evangelical candidate, Javier Bertucci.

"The longer [Maduro and the ruling socialist party] are in power, the harder it is to imagine them leaving," she says. "But I say that all Venezuelans should get out and vote, after everything we've been through, and tackle everything that's happening to us."

That message is shared by a figure who has come to dominate debate surrounding Venezuela's election: Henri Falcón, 56, a former state governor who broke with the ruling party in 2010 and is now President Maduro's main challenger. Venezuelans appear divided over what to make of Falcón's candidacy.

Polling makes it hard to gauge: While some recent surveys have Maduro in the lead, some put Falcón ahead, while others have them tied. Many Venezuelans are expected to abstain from voting.

Falcón's decision to run has enraged Venezuela's main opposition parties, who are boycotting the vote. They see the election as fraudulent — a view shared by the United States and others in the international sphere — and accuse Falcón of legitimizing it.

"I believe Mr. Falcón is part of the system we are trying to change," said María Corina Machado, a prominent opposition leader.

"There are many [vested] interests right now in our country [aiming] to keep the status quo," she said. "Some people believe it will be possible for Maduro to go, but leave all the mafias in place. That is not going to happen."

Yet Falcón insists the boycott plays into Maduro's hands, and that you cannot defeat him unless you actually enter the contest. Falcón argues if Venezuelans turn out and vote, he'll win — although it is far from clear what would happen after that.

Many analysts have concluded that — no matter the outcome — Maduro will remain in power, helped by an autocratic control of state institutions. The president's approval rating has hovered around 20 percent, which is low compared with past support for his popular predecessor and mentor, the late Hugo Chávez. Some polls predict President Maduro earning more than that percentage of the vote on Sunday.

A re-election would delight Nicolás Barrios, a 25-year-old student who is an ardent supporter of Maduro. Barrios appears convinced by the Chavista argument that Venezuela's problems are not of its own making, but the result of an economic war waged by the outside world, notably the United States.

Like many young people in Caracas, Barrios has seen friends leave the country to work abroad in search of work and income. His girlfriend has gone to Argentina, where she sells ice cream and earns more in a day that he can in a month.

He says she has been urging him to join her, but he steadfastly refuses to go. "She's told me several times to come, but I don't do it," he says. "I don't go, because this is my country and we have to stay and fight. I love her a lot, but she's decided to leave, and I'm staying."

López, the fruit seller, wishes she could go abroad, like the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who've left the country in recent years as the crisis worsened. That way she could earn some hard currency to support her family. Her brother has migrated to Colombia, where he washes cars.

Yet when López applied for a passport this week, she says she was told must pay a $700 bribe — a sum way beyond her means. It reinforced her view that change is urgently needed.

"What we are going through in Venezuela is very sad," says López. "A lot of mothers are sending their children out to find food. You see kids in dumpsters looking for food."

She's worried about what will happen after the election, if Maduro remains, as she only sees Venezuela's crisis getting worse. "I'm very afraid," she says. "All the people are afraid."

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Venezuelans are being asked to vote in a presidential election tomorrow. The result may seem a foregone conclusion. The autocratic Nicolas Maduro is expected to remain in power despite the economic catastrophe that engulfs his nation. NPR's Philip Reeves took to the streets of Caracas where he found some deeply worried people.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: In a Caracas market, a trader's listing the latest prices for fruit and veg. These days, he never has good news. Hyperinflation is devastating Venezuela.

ARILES LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Life is so hard," says Ariles Lopez (ph), who sells mangos and plums. "Inflation's killing us."

Lopez is among those who plans to vote in tomorrow's election in Venezuela. The mainstream opposition's boycotting the poll because it says it's fraudulent. Yet Lopez thinks voting's important because somehow, life here has to change, especially her life. Lopez used to work behind her fruit stall with her husband. Ten months ago, he was attacked in a nearby gas station by two men trying to steal his cellphone.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: They shot him in the chest, she says, and took his phone. He survived five days. After his murder, her mother, who's diabetic, became ill and went into a coma, she says. There's a dire shortage of medicine in Venezuela. Lopez launched a desperate appeal to her fellow Venezuelans on Facebook.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Thank God we found a woman who had the meds we needed," she says.


REEVES: Talk to Venezuelans, and you hear many stories like this. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country. Lopez would like to go, too. When she tried to get a passport, she says she couldn't afford the $700 bribe the officials demanded. A few feet from her stall, Carlos Bellos (ph) is buying a handful of potatoes. He sells hardware, but most of his work's dried up. His income's been rendered almost worthless by the collapse of the currency. He lives on fruit and veg and looks skeletal.

CARLOS BELLOS: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "I won't be voting," says Bellos. He has no faith in government or in the election's principal characters - President Nicolas Maduro and the main challenger, Henri Falcon, a former state governor. Falcon is the focus of much debate in this election. Venezuelans are divided over what to make of him. He used to be in the ruling Socialist Party but left in 2010. He wants to dollarize the economy and allow international humanitarian aid into Venezuela. That's helped him win significant support, although not from Venezuela's opposition.

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: I believe Mr. Falcon is part of the system we're trying to change.

REEVES: Maria Corina Machado is one of the prominent opposition leaders. She believes Falcon's candidacy is legitimizing a fraudulent poll. Maduro's certain to be declared the winner, she says.

MACHADO: This is a farce, sham process.

REEVES: Many in the international sphere agree with that, including the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Shouting in Spanish).

REEVES: This doesn't deter Maduro supporters, as they rally ahead of an election they're confident is theirs. These include Jose Pimental (ph), who's 23. He says he likes President Maduro...

JOSE PIMENTAL: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Because he supports the young. He also buys Maduro's central argument that Venezuela's a victim of an economic war led by the U.S. Maduro still has a core support. And he and the ruling party also control the government's most powerful institutions. Most analysts appear to believe that means he'll remain in power. Back in the fruit market, Ariles Lopez is worried by that. She says no one knows what'll happen after the election as Venezuela's economic disaster further unfolds.

LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "But," she says, "I'm scared. Everyone's scared."

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.