Fired for not vot­ing, Venezue­lan speaks out

State work­ers were threat­ened with job loss, end to ben­e­fits.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Maeva Bambuck

Javier Her­nan­dez knew he was go­ing to be fired.

Ev­ery­one who worked with him in a state-run ce­ment fac­tory was told to vote last month in an elec­tion to choose del­e­gates for a new con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly grant­ing nearly un­lim­ited pow­ers to Venezuela’s rul­ing so­cial­ist party. With the op­po­si­tion boy­cotting the vote, vir­tu­ally all the can­di­dates were gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers. A vote was tan­ta­mount to a show of sup­port for Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro and his al­lies.

Re­sent­ful of what he saw as a rigged process, Her­nan­dez flouted his su­per­vi­sors’ order and didn’t vote. Last Wed­nes­day, he was taken out­side the build­ing and in­formed that he was fired.

Now he has be­come a rare pub­lic voice speak­ing out against a phe­nom­e­non that gov­ern­ment crit­ics say was wide­spread in last month’s vote — Venezue­lans were threat­ened with loss of their pub­lic ben­e­fits or state jobs if they didn’t par­tic­i­pate.

“It was not a sur­pris­ing mea­sure, be­cause we had been warned,” Her­nan­dez said. “The peo­ple who did not go to vote were ex­plic­itly threat­ened . ... If we didn’t go to vote on 30th of July, we would be fired.”

Her­nan­dez had worked as a pro­duc­tion man­ager in the fac­tory for five years. Thanks to in­fla­tion, his monthly salary had de­clined so much in value that it was worth only about $25 on the widely used black mar­ket ex­change rate. So he started do­ing free­lance work for in­ter­na­tional com­pa­nies on the side — ex­tra in­come that al­lowed him to make a choice that was out of reach for many others.

Her­nan­dez’s wife, Den­itza Col­menarez, a 39-year-old pub­lic-school teacher, said she was not threat­ened for choos­ing not to vote. Her­nan­dez, how­ever, said he was one of 15 peo­ple who were fired from the fac­tory in the Cara­cas sub­urb of Gu­atire for re­fus­ing to vote.

“‘What are you guys go­ing to do? Are you go­ing to vote?’ Be­lieve it or not, but it was the big­gest topic of dis­cus­sion in many cir­cles and many fam­i­lies,” he said. “What should we do? Do we take the prag­matic ap­proach to pre­serve our salary and our em­ploy­ment, or do we make a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion?”

The gov­ern­ment says more than 8 mil­lion peo­ple voted in the con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly elec­tion, although the po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and in­de­pen­dent ex­perts say turnout was less than half of that and there was wide­spread co­er­cion and fraud. The gov­ern­ment is Venezuela’s largest em­ployer, with nearly 3 mil­lion peo­ple work­ing in a pub­lic post.

It’s not the first time Maduro or his pre­de­ces­sor, Hugo Chavez, used state jobs and ben­e­fits to pres­sure Venezue­lans to sup­port them. Chavez fa­mously re­tal­i­ated against a group of Venezue­lans who signed a 2003 pe­ti­tion ask­ing for his re­moval. Those who signed it were barred from pub­lic em­ploy­ment and of­ten cut off from so­cial ben­e­fits.

Maduro has sim­i­larly re­tal­i­ated against state busi­ness man­agers who signed a sim­i­lar pe­ti­tion last year.

Her­nan­dez says such tac­tics reached a peak with last month’s con­sti­tu­tional as­sem­bly vote.

“Pres­i­dent Maduro and the gov­ern­ment fo­cused on pub­lic em­ploy­ees . ... They said they would make sure that all pub­lic em­ploy­ees would vote. For us it was like an alarm bell — it meant we didn’t have an op­tion,” he said.

The choice was prag­ma­tism or pol­i­tics, he said.

WIL RIERA / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Javier Her­nan­dez, a former em­ployee of a state-run ce­ment fac­tory, seen with his wife, teacher Den­itza Col­menarez, at home in Gu­atire, Venezuela, was fired from his man­age­rial job July 30.

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