World Americas

With crucial vote looming, Venezuelans hear clarion call to civic action

A shift in thought

A July 30 vote will elect an assembly to rewrite the constitution – a plan citizens have not approved, and that critics call a power grab. As the deadline looms, many are doubling down on the democratic channels that remain to express their discontent.

Opposition supporters shout slogans during a rally against the National Constituent Assembly, outside a school where a polling center will be established for a Constitutional Assembly election next Sunday, in Caracas, Venezuela on July 24, 2017.
Marco Bello/ Reuters
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At the behest of opposition congressmen, Venezuelans are taking their political fight to the schoolyard.

Hand-written posters hang from fences, trees, and bus stops outside schools used for government voting centers, calling for the cancellation of President Nicolás Maduro’s planned July 30 vote to elect a special assembly to rewrite the country’s 1999 Constitution.

“Free Venezuela,” reads one sign in the Montalbán neighborhood in western Caracas on Monday. “No to the dictatorship of hunger,” reads another. 

The Constituyente, or Constituent Assembly, will only partially be selected by the public, and is expected to be stacked with government sympathizers. Mr. Maduro says it’s the only way to restore calm to a country facing triple-digit inflation, climbing levels of malnutrition, and four months of consecutive street protests. But critics see it as a power grab, allowing the government to do away with the opposition-held National Assembly and any commitment to holding fresh elections, which polls show it would likely lose.

The international community has so far largely failed to hold the government accountable for its human rights abuses and disregard for democratic institutions. The United States this week imposed sanctions on 13 Venezuelan officials. However, US involvement in Venezuelan affairs has often backfired, characterized as imperialist meddling. Meanwhile, the Organization of American States has failed to agree on resolutions formally condemning what’s unfolding in Venezuela. 

But, as July 30 approaches – a date both sides of the political spectrum see as a potential turning point – the role of Venezuelan citizens is becoming increasingly front-and-center, with some getting involved in ways they’d never imagined even just a few months back. From the more than 7 million Venezuelans in and outside the country who reportedly turned out for an unsanctioned referendum on the Constituent Assembly earlier this month (98 percent said they were against it), to general strikes sweeping the country this week, and largely peaceful demonstrations big and small, the population is doubling down on the democratic channels that remain to express their discontent.

“I don’t think the people have changed, but the circumstances have changed, and Venezuelans have adapted to the crises that they’re living,” says Luis Vicente Leon, president of the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis. “They are more active, more in the street, more responsive to the [political] opposition. They’ve organized informal elections, organized strikes, and protests.”

Datanalisis found that two-thirds of the population opposes the constituent assembly, and another 69 percent believe Maduro should step down this year. Many say they will boycott the vote.

“The majority of the population is anxious, activated, and rejecting the violations of their rights,” says Mr. Leon.

Hope and fear

While the past several months of protests have been a wake-up call for many Venezuelans, July 30 is a looming deadline.

Yamilet Rondon, a manicurist at a small salon in Caracas, says she’s afraid of what the Constituent Assembly will mean for the country. “The future is very uncertain,” she says, painting her nails yellow as she waits for her next customer. She says she hasn’t participated in protests because she’s a single mother, and can’t afford to lose her job or get injured. But she’s become vigilant about voting. Protesters today are calling for fresh elections, after the government squashed opposition plans for a recall vote in 2016.

“I don’t want [my kids] to grow up in a country like this. [I vote because] it is the only way I have to contribute” to change.

In Petare, a poor neighborhood in Eastern Caracas, she watched earlier this month as her increasingly frustrated neighbors still turned up at polling centers for the government’s ‘trial run’ of the July 30 vote – motivated, she says, by fear.

“That made me very depressed,” Ms. Rondon says. “I saw many neighbors who are upset about the [political and economic situation] and they were participating. And why? Just for a bag of food.”

For the past year, analysts say, the government has been tapping into neighborhood committees, which are historically loyal to the Chávez administration, to keep tabs on neighbors and deliver bags of food staples to those that support Maduro.

For Octavio, a baker in downtown Caracas, political activism is something he’d never considered before April, when the opposition-led National Assembly was temporarily dissolved by the Supreme Court.

“My main motivation to [go out and demonstrate] is this,” he says, motioning to the bare shelves in his bakery. He asked not to publish his last name for fear of reprisals.

“At the beginning of the protests, in April, I didn’t participate. Later, when I realized that the movement was more serious, I started to go,” he says. 

The government’s mismanagement of the economy, combined with low oil prices, have caused shortages of staples across the country, including the baking flour needed, literally, for his bread (and butter). Ten years ago, when Octavio opened his shop, he made and sold everything from baguettes to sweet breads. “Now, I hardly produce,” he says. He has coffee, juice, soda, cold cuts, and cigarettes for sale today.

“I feel this is our last chance,” he says, referring to joining the protests. “We risk losing everything” if the Constituent Assembly takes place. “That’s why we, the citizens, have to stay on the street and continue to exert pressure.”

Relearning civil society

Venezuela has been a democracy since the 1960s. Before former President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, however, political participation was relatively cursory.

Civil society “was very thin, and the level of public participation was superficial,” says Christopher Sabatini, who teaches about Latin America at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “The government was a duopoly greased by oil money … and that system provided for people, creating a patronage-driven system that didn’t require much civic participation.”

And although public participation became more visible under Chávez – both for and against his policies – civil society weakened further via government crackdowns, analysts say. What’s new today is the diversity of those taking to the street to protest, as well as how long the demonstrations have lasted.

What Venezuela is experiencing today is “extremely hard,” says Colette Capriles, a sociologist at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas. “It is unprecedented and demands a social education that we don’t have yet,” she says, pointing to many people’s continued wish to end the conflict via elections, although the government has squashed that option multiple times. “However, I do think that learning process is taking place, and that’s exceptional.”

For Octavio, the baker, growing up before Chavismo is something that’s inspired his involvement in the protests. “I lived [in] another Venezuela, that’s why I know things can be better,” he says, adding that he’s the only one of his four siblings still in the country. 

“I have hope,” he says, “and part of the fight is to wake up every morning and open my business, even when there isn’t much to sell.”

Support from afar

It’s not just inside Venezuela where citizens have increasingly taken a stand. Earlier this month, an estimated 700,000 Venezuelans living abroad organized in roughly a week to set up a global protest vote. The turnout ranged from single-digit voters in Uganda to more than 22,000 in Mexico, local organizers say. According to one volunteer, Venezuelans in Chile cried when the polls, unprepared for such a large number of voters, closed before everyone could cast their ballots.

“It was really important for the people living outside Venezuela to take a public stand,” says Yolanda Morales de Makhlous, who helped organize the vote in Mexico City. She was already politically active before leaving Venezuela in January 2016. But she encouraged other Venezuelans in Mexico to cast their ballot, even if the Maduro government wasn’t going to recognize the outcome.

“It is the only way to show, at an international level, that we aren’t okay with the government’s plans,” she says. “And the more people participating, the less fear people have to protest at home.”

And that kind of encouragement, near and far, will likely become more crucial, says Leon, the pollster. “Public participation could become more dangerous as both sides become more radicalized.”

Many are holding out hope that something will happen before Sunday – perhaps an agreement in the rumored closed-door discussions between the opposition and the government, according to Leon – to keep the Constituent Assembly from moving forward. The outcome of the vote will be messy, whether it includes fierce international sanctions, a parallel government, or even violence that amplifies Venezuela’s crises to civil war.

Regardless, the public protest movement “won’t be destroyed come Monday,” Leon says. “This resistance in the streets is sincere. And it won’t stop overnight.”