They fled oppression at home, but it follows them abroad

They fled oppression at home, but it follows them abroad
They fled oppression at home, but it follows them abroad

The line in front of the Venezuelan consulate in Madrid stretched along the block.

Pregnant women, families with small children, elderly people and people with disabilities arrived at 4 a.m. (five hours before the office opened) trying to register to vote in Venezuela’s highly anticipated presidential election.

Adriana Rodríguez, 47, who left Venezuela in 2018, showed up at 8 a.m., two days in a row.

Both times she waited four hours before reaching the front of the line, only to be turned away, she said, always with the same explanation:

“They couldn’t register more people.”

Since Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolas Madurowho was trailing far in polls ahead of the July 28 vote, the government has imposed strict rules making it nearly impossible for millions of Venezuelans living abroad, including in the United States, Spain and Latin American countries, to register to vote.

Many left their homeland due to harsh economic and political conditions.

As a result, the government’s tactics amount to widespread voter fraud, election experts say, since up to 25% of Venezuela’s eligible voters live outside the country, and a large number likely I would not vote for Maduro.

A supporter holds a banner with images of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado and presidential candidate Edmundo Gonzalez, during a campaign rally in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Thursday, May 2, 2024. No decision in Venezuela in the past 25 years has been as momentous as the choice voters will make on July 28. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)

In between 3.5 and 5.5 million Venezuelans eligible to vote live outside the country, out of a total electorate of 21 million people, according to electoral experts and opposition activists.

Only a few 69,000 Venezuelans living abroad are registered to vote.

“They are purposely disenfranchising people,” said Fernanda Buril, deputy director of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, an organization outside Washington that promotes democracy.

“It’s a complete violation of all kinds of election integrity standards.”

At Venezuelan consulates in several countries, hundreds of citizens wait day after day in long lines, facing unexplained delays, confusing instructions and unexpected requirements from slow-moving officials, according to Venezuelans interviewed in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain.

Rodriguez, an interior designer who said she felt “forced” to leave Venezuela after increasing repression and a failing economy made a future there “unviable,” described intense anger and frustration as people hoping to register to vote were turned away by consular officials.

“You feel like you are letting your country down,” Rodriguez said, adding that he wanted to vote for the opposition.

“Why do I have to go through this to exercise my right to vote?”

Venezuela’s electoral authority and its embassy in Spain did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Maduro has accused the opposition of planning to commit electoral fraud and stage a coup.

In some cases, the Venezuelan government, election experts said, is strictly enforcing existing rules to make registration more difficult.

The most common tactic, they said, is the use of a law requiring citizens abroad to have “residency” or “legal status” in the country where they live in order to vote.

In the current election cycle, that rule has been used to reject many forms of identification, including visas, that had been acceptable in the past.

Emigrants

In Colombiaapproximately 2 million Venezuelans have temporary protected status as part of a historic effort by the Colombian government to legalize nearly all Venezuelans in the country.

But Venezuela does not accept that status as proof of residency.

(For Venezuelans in Uruguay, the Venezuelan government requires a four-year Uruguayan identification card, although Uruguay does not issue such cards to legal foreign residents that are valid for more than three years.)

By erecting obstacles to voting abroad, the Venezuelan government is following a playbook used by other non-democratic countries, Buril said.

“Voter fraud is no longer just about ballot stuffing on Election Day,” he said.

“It’s throughout the entire process.”

The upcoming vote could be decisive in determining the future of democracy in a country that has the world’s largest oil reserves but has seen nearly 8 million people, about a quarter of its population, leave amid a failing economy and years of authoritarian rule.

The government agreed to hold free and fair elections under pressure from the United States and in exchange for relief from crushing US sanctions.

But critics say Maduro’s government has put up obstacles at every turn to try to prevent a credible vote.

Still, a united opposition and what polls suggest is an intense hunger for change among many Venezuelans could pose the biggest challenge to Maduro’s 11 years in power.

The erosion of voting rights began more than 10 years ago and has gradually worsened, said Eugenio Martinez, director of Votoscopio, an election monitoring organization.

Under Venezuelan law, citizens abroad should be able to register year-round at any embassy or consulate if they have a Venezuelan national identity document, even if it is expired.

But the government has allowed registration only for limited periods.

Procedure

This year, the electoral authority designated a 29-day period between March and April for Venezuelans to register or update their personal information, including where they live and their polling station.

But even that period was cut short at several embassies and consulates by a variety of problems, including computer failures.

During the brief window opened by the government, only 508 Venezuelans managed to register to vote worldwide, according to data collected by Votoscopio.

“We have called it, without fear of exaggeration, a massive pre-electoral fraud,” said Ligia Bolívar, who lives in Bogotá, Colombia, and is the founder of Provea, a Venezuelan human rights organization.

In countries that have broken diplomatic relations with the Maduro government, such as the United States, Venezuelans have no way to register to vote.

The new rules adopted for this month’s elections also require applicants to present a valid Venezuelan passport, a document that can cost more than $300.

That’s about a third of Dayana Hernández’s monthly salary as a receptionist at a dental office in Spain. Hernández, 40, left Venezuela in 2018 after the country’s deepening economic problems made it difficult to access care for her son, who has autism.

He blamed the Maduro government, whom he hoped to oust from power, for the country’s situation.

Not being able to register to vote left her feeling “devastated and helpless,” she said.

“You feel like you can’t contribute.”

Bolívar, one of Provea’s founders, called it “paradoxical” that the people most affected by Venezuela’s economic crisis and autocratic government probably have little say in determining their future.

Bolívar, who has lived in Bogotá for five years, was also unable to register.

He has had his current Colombian visa for three years, less than the five years required to become a permanent resident and be eligible to register for Venezuela’s elections.

“People had high expectations of registering,” Bolívar said. But he added:

“The government put an end to all that.”

Victor Faza, 25, a Venezuelan living in Argentina, was unable to register because his passport had expired. However, he became active in a local non-profit organization that petitioned the Venezuelan Consulate to set up more registration stations.

But speaking to consulate staff to try to facilitate voter registration “was literally like talking to a brick wall,” she said.

He wants to return to his country, if free and fair elections lead to a change of government.

“I don’t see myself returning to Venezuela under a dictatorship,” he said.

“This is the last chance to see our country free.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

 
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