Ahead of state con­tests set for Sun­day, some an­tic­i­pate a test of Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro’s will­ing­ness to share power

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY RACHELLE KRYGIER AND AN­THONY FAIOLA rachelle.krygier@wash­ an­thony.faiola@wash­ Faiola re­ported from Mi­ami.

are pre­par­ing to vote in a key elec­tion that could of­fer clues on Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro’s will­ing­ness to share power.

mai­que­tia, venezuela — Venezue­lans vote Sun­day in state elec­tions seen as a test of Pres­i­dent Ni­colás Maduro’s will­ing­ness to share power. But with polls show­ing the rul­ing so­cial­ists at risk of land­slide losses, the au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ment ap­pears to be fall­ing back on a tri­fecta of tac­tics.

Ma­nip­u­la­tion, con­fu­sion and fear.

Two and a half months af­ter the cre­ation of a su­per-con­gress that gave the govern­ment nearly ab­so­lute power, Maduro has called the vote for state gov­er­nors clear ev­i­dence that democ­racy re­mains alive here. But op­po­si­tion lead­ers see a dirty cam­paign by the Venezue­lan govern­ment, which Pres­i­dent Trump has de­nounced as a “so­cial­ist dic­ta­tor­ship.”

State me­dia is air­ing al­most round-the-clock sup­port­ive cov­er­age of pro-govern­ment can­di­dates, while portraying their chal­lengers as hyp­o­crit­i­cal and in­ept. All can­di­dates, mean­while, are be­ing lim­ited to four min­utes of po­lit­i­cal ads per day on in­de­pen­dent net­works that now sur­vive by self-cen­sor­ing.

As of­ten hap­pened dur­ing the reign of Pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez — who named Maduro his suc­ces­sor be­fore his death in 2013 — food bas­kets are be­ing doled out to hun­gry vot­ers at pro-govern­ment ral­lies. In a move seen as pur­posely mis­lead­ing, the bal­lots for Sun­day’s elec­tion will in­clude a host of can­di­dates who lost in the pri­maries and are not sup­posed to be run­ning. This week, the govern­ment abruptly an­nounced that it would re­lo­cate some vot­ing cen­ters for “se­cu­rity rea­sons.” Op­po­si­tion lead­ers said the move in­volved 205 lo­ca­tions in heav­ily anti-govern­ment dis­tricts in 16 states.

That, crit­ics say, amounts to ma­nip­u­la­tion and con­fu­sion. And then there’s fear. Here in Var­gas, a coastal state just north of Cara­cas, for in­stance, the brother of op­po­si­tion can­di­date José Manuel Oli­vares was de­tained last week by in­tel­li­gence po­lice for al­legedly steal­ing a car — a charge his fam­ily de­nies. While stump­ing for votes, the can­di­date is of­ten shad­owed, he said, by state agents.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon in the nar­row streets of a sea­side slum, Oli­vares, an on­col­o­gist, was go­ing door to door, shak­ing hands and kiss­ing cheeks. As he walked up to one con­crete house, a wo­man watched him ner­vously from her win­dow be­fore scur­ry­ing out of view.

When he knocked, she an­swered, beg­ging pho­tog­ra­phers fol­low­ing Oli­vares to lower their cam­eras.

“You see?” he said, wip­ing sweat off his brow af­ter a short talk with the wo­man. “She’s scared. They think they’ll lose what­ever the govern­ment gives them — even their jobs, if they’re pub­lic work­ers.”

Win­ning can­di­dates from the op­po­si­tion prob­a­bly will find their pow­ers re­strained. Maduro has said that all gov­er­nors will come un­der the author­ity of the Con­stituent As­sem­bly, the govern­ment-con­trolled su­per­congress cre­ated in a July vote marred by al­le­ga­tions of mas­sive fraud. That body is likely to make life tough for any gover­nor who is not in line with Maduro.

Yet the vote still is seen as a key test. If turnout is high, polls sug­gest the op­po­si­tion could cap­ture gov­er­nor­ships in up to 19 of Venezuela’s 23 states. An­a­lysts are watch­ing to see whether the govern­ment faces al­le­ga­tions of vo­terig­ging sim­i­lar to those that emerged dur­ing the July elec­tion. De­spite the polls, Maduro last week­end said his party is “ex­pect­ing a his­toric suc­cess.”

“There’s a chance we might win all of the states, the 23 of them,” he said.

Given their strat­egy of sub­or­di­nat­ing gov­er­nors to the govern­ment-con­trolled as­sem­bly, au­thor­i­ties might risk lit­tle by al­low­ing a clean vote — while gain­ing much from the op­tics. The govern­ment may be cal­cu­lat­ing that such an event could defuse in­ter­na­tional pres­sure and ap­pease its do­mes­tic op­po­nents.

“I sus­pect the govern­ment would use a de­feat as a kind of vic­tory — to try to push back against the ev­i­dence that it’s tak­ing to­tal power,” said Guillermo Zu­bil­laga, head of a work­ing group on Venezuela at the Amer­i­cas So­ci­ety/Coun­cil of the Amer­i­cas, a busi­ness and ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion based in New York.

Still, the elec­tion is an im­por­tant bell­wether for the op­po­si­tion, which has mostly failed to sus­tain the large-scale street protests that rocked the na­tion ear­lier this year. The ac­tivists’ con­cern now is that govern­ment tac­tics — and a gen­eral sense of help­less­ness among vot­ers — may de­press turnout Sun­day.

In a text mes­sage to The Wash­ing­ton Post, Ernesto Vil­le­gas, Venezuela’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, called the op­po­si­tion al­le­ga­tions “a deja vu.”

“In each elec­tion they ap­peal to the same sto­ries,” he said. “And when they win some posts, they rapidly for­get about the fraud that sup­pos­edly was about to be com­mit­ted.”

He added: “What’s sub­stan­tial is that in this un­usual ‘dic­ta­tor­ship’ led by Maduro, there’s an elec­tion in ev­ery state in the coun­try. The op­po­si­tion reg­is­tered can­di­dates for ev­ery post. ... Those com­plaints are fig leaves to cover the truth: par­tic­i­pat­ing in elec­tions. The op­po­si­tion is deny­ing its own ar­gu­ment. In Venezuela, there’s no dic­ta­tor­ship.”

Maduro is deeply un­pop­u­lar, in part due to a se­vere eco­nomic cri­sis brought on by de­clin­ing oil prices and what many view as govern­ment mis­man­age­ment. Re­cent polls show the pres­i­dent’s ap­proval rat­ing at 23 per­cent. But op­po­si­tion lead­ers also have lost sup­port be­cause of in­fight­ing and al­leged dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion. Some crit­ics have pil­lo­ried them for even par­tic­i­pat­ing in the state elec­tions, ar­gu­ing that the move is val­i­dat­ing the govern­ment and play­ing into Maduro’s hands.

Op­po­si­tion lead­ers re­spond that by run­ning, they are pro­vid­ing hope to Venezue­lans, who are en­dur­ing the world’s high­est in­fla­tion rate as well as se­vere short­ages of food and medicine.

“If peo­ple un­der­stand that with th­ese elec­tions they’re mov­ing one step for­ward to over­throw Maduro, they’ll vote,” said op­po­si­tion can­di­date Oli­vares.

Var­gas state has been a pro-govern­ment bas­tion since Chávez’s rise in 1999. It is home to a mas­sive num­ber of pub­lic em­ploy­ees be­cause of its port and air­port, as well as once-prom­i­nent govern­ment-owned com­pa­nies.

But most of those state op­er­a­tions are now badly run-down or broke. In ad­di­tion, there has been a sharp de­cline in tourists, who once filled lo­cal ho­tels. A large part of the pop­u­la­tion now strug­gles to sur­vive off govern­ment ben­e­fits.

Oli­vares sees a pos­si­ble win­dow here. Five years ago, when he ran un­suc­cess­fully for gover­nor, he was not even able to en­ter the slums.

“Peo­ple would chase us out with rocks and in­sults,” Oli­vares said. “What you’re see­ing to­day was un­think­able back then.”

He has built sup­port in part by tak­ing a page from the govern­ment’s play­book — es­tab­lish­ing eight pub­lic kitchens funded by pri­vate do­na­tions that each serve daily lunches to 100 to 150 chil­dren.

As he cam­paigned in the streets re­cently, desperation was ev­i­dent. Peo­ple dragged Oli­vares to ill fam­ily mem­bers and handed him un­filled pre­scrip­tions. At one point dur­ing his visit to a slum here, res­i­dents took him to the home of an el­derly wo­man whose foot was cov­ered by a dark bruise.

“I have a ve­nous ul­cer, and I can’t treat it, doc­tor,” she said, adding that her medicine was un­avail­able.

“We’ll get it for you, my love,” he said.

Nearby, a govern­ment sup­porter — a re­tired po­lice­man who de­clined to give his name — in­sisted that the op­po­si­tion was wast­ing its time.

“Vot­ing for Oli­vares is like spit­ting on the hand that feeds us,” he said. “The govern­ment gave me a house. There’s no way he’ll win here. We’re with the govern­ment un­til death.”


TOP: Mil­i­tary per­son­nel with elec­toral ma­te­ri­als par­tic­i­pate Mon­day in a cer­e­mony in the Venezue­lan cap­i­tal. ABOVE: Tibisay Lu­cena, the coun­try’s top elec­tion of­fi­cial, speaks Mon­day be­hind a piece of glass bear­ing a pic­ture of the late leader Hugo...

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