Venezuelans Vote in Election Shadowed by Crisis and Boycott
(Bloomberg) -- Venezuelans went to the polls Sunday in an election ignored by much of the country, but one that could set its path for decades to come.
Scant, apathetic crowds formed outside Caracas voting stations. Many Venezuelans are shunning what they say is sham that will guarantee President Nicolas Maduro another six-year term. The country’s main opposition coalition is boycotting the vote, leaving Henri Falcon, a former governor, and televangelist Javier Bertucci, to attempt to animate a nation ravaged by hunger and hyperinflation.
Just before 10 p.m., Falcon said the results of the election were suspect and illegitimate. In a late-night press conference, Falcon told reporters the vote was “neither transparent or clean.”
“For us, there were no elections,” he said. “There need to be new elections.”
Government supporters were gathering outside the Miraflores presidential palace in anticipation of a Maduro victory celebration.
Earlier Sunday, Hector Hernandez, a 42-year-old military sergeant standing outside a voting center in the eastern district of Chacao, said his superiors required him to vote.
“I’m here because I have to be,” said Hernandez, who said he struggles to feed his four children given hyperinflation and food shortages. Hernandez said he planned to cast his ballot against Maduro but held little hope it would bring change. “We’re in the middle of a disaster, but there is no chance they’re leaving. If I were a civilian, I’d be at home.”
The United Nations has refused to certify Venezuela’s polling as fair. On Sunday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan reiterated during an interview in Buenos Aires that America wouldn’t recognize the winner and that oil sanctions are under “active review.” While election observers have been invited from across the region and from Russia and Europe, they’re powerless to control a government accused of employing dirty tricks from intimidating voters to stuffing ballot boxes.
In neighborhoods such as 23 de Enero, Catia and Propatria -- some of the most populous in Caracas -- none of the voting centers had lines and only about a sixth of the electorate had voted by late morning. In Chacao, an opposition stronghold, more people were attending Mass at a church on a plaza than were in line to vote. Most business were shuttered and streets were eerily empty as many residents stayed home or busied themselves with weekend chores.
“Today’s plan is to watch television and go to the pool,” said Andres Gonzalez, 25, the owner of a locksmith business, as he emerged from a supermarket.
Government supporters set up kiosks called “Red Points” near polling stations, which were to close at 6 p.m. They asked people who voted to show the Maduro-promoted Fatherland Card that’s required to receive subsidized food, and questioned them about their jobs and what government programs they use.
Outside a station in the working-class neighborhood of San Martin near downtown Caracas, Maribel Machado, a 60-year-old retired teacher, helped take down names. She denied that voters were being threatened with hunger, saying the state was simply trying to better distribute its resources.
“The opposition simply doesn’t want people to vote, what they have called for is violence and have spread lies,” Machado said.
Falcon cast his vote in the western state of Lara, the state he once ran as governor, and called the Red Points an “intimidation mechanism, a form of political and social bribery that tried to buy voter’s dignity by scanning their I.D."
Maduro rebutted claims that the vote was unfair and demanded “respect” for Venezuela’s election. “To the world, I say stop the ferocious campaign of confusion,” he said at press conference broadcast from a voting center in central Caracas, where he cast his ballot early in the day.
The opposition alliance shunned the elections after the government refused to satisfy its demands, including restaffing a compliant electoral authority and providing additional time for primaries. While many polls have given a commanding lead to Falcon, he’s struggled to gain widespread support as many Maduro opponents accused him legitimizing a sham vote. And Bertucci has further split the diminished opposition bloc.
But even as Maduro, 55, has consolidated political power, reviving Venezuela’s economy has been beyond his grasp. After years of mismanagement and a plunge in oil prices, it’s deteriorated to the point that electricity and running water have become luxuries, and malnutrition is rampant.
Maduro has dealt out large and profitable sectors of the economy to the armed forces, installing soldiers in key positions at the state oil producer, PDVSA, and empowered the military to oversee the nation’s food supply.
However, the president, a former bus driver and foreign minister, has given little indication of his plans to remedy inflation that may hit 13,000 percent this year, and an economic contraction that could reach 9.2 percent.
Maduro’s promise of an “economic revolution” is complicated by the threats from U.S. to punish the nation’s oil industry. Five years ago, oil was trading at over $100 a barrel, which gave the ruling socialists leeway. Now, it’s near $67 a barrel -- even after significant gains this year -- and the state producer’s creditors are already seizing its assets.
Few expect that Maduro, who insists the crisis is the result of sabotage by business leaders and political foes, will change course if he wins, as expected, another six-year term. But if he loses, the nation may begin to climb out of a deep hole.
“There is no evidence to suggest that Maduro has the intention or the ability to reform,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst at the International Crisis group.
Falcon and his adviser Francisco Rodriguez -- until recently the chief economist at boutique investment firm Torino Capital -- want to dollarize Venezuela’s moribund economy, swapping the worthless bolivar for the greenback, as Ecuador and El Salvador have done. They say their proposal would unwind years of byzantine currency controls and provide monthly subsidies to offset the adjustment.
Bertucci, a businessman and evangelical preacher, has focused on promoting “Christian values” rather than on specific policy proposals. He said the economy must be fixed, corruption fought, and the nation’s humanitarian crisis healed, but has offered few ideas about how he might go about doing that.
On Sunday, evidence of Venezuela’s economic crisis could be seen on every corner where trash bags had been dumped. Each had been ripped open and the contents spread across the sidewalks as hungry residents scavenged for food.
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