Members of the Venezuelan opposition take part in a march to demand electoral power to activate the recall referendum against the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, in Caracas last July. Photograph: AFP/Getty
Armed with an old tablecloth on which is written the words “revocatorio ya”, or “recall now”, 36-year-old unemployed architect Gabriela Valero will take to the streets of Caracas on Wednesday. She is part of a movement trying to force a referendum on Nicolás Maduro’s government.
“This cloth has more need now on the streets of Caracas than in my home,” says Valero, who is growing increasingly desperate due to the country’s crumbling economy. “I am a middle-class person in a middle-class neighbourhood and we struggle to buy food. We queue for hours in a lottery for staples like corn, oil and flour, or I am forced to buy from the black market.
“When [the late president Hugo] Chávez was in power things weren’t great, but when Maduro stepped in everything got worse and worse. The government is becoming more and more authoritative and militarised. We, the people of Venezuela, need to push for a change in government, and the only way is to do it peacefully through the recall referendum,” she says.
With polls showing that 80% of Venezuelans would vote against Maduro in a referendum, opponents of the country’s 17-year leftwing administration have made the recall their focus.
Demonstrators sing Venezuela’s national anthem during a protest against the Maduro government. Photograph: Ariana Cubillos/AP
Medical student Astrid Escalona, 21, will be protesting against a government that she believes is doing everything it can to make the referendum impossible.
“Even though we are exhausted from attending all of the protests that have been organised we don’t give up. People are losing their patience as every day passes, becoming a time bomb. There are so many things that make our lives more difficult and if you mix them together it is almost impossible to keep going. The best outcome is to have the referendum this year. If not, there could be a social breakdown: people can no longer keep living with this.
“Just two years ago I was able to buy breakfast on my way to college almost every day. Right now I can’t do that, I have no money. My cat died because we could not find food for cats, so we gave her dog food instead and she got sick because cats can’t digest dog food,” she says.
Last month, Maduro’s opponents were dealt a blow. The National Electoral Council (CNE) set the date for the referendum too late to trigger a presidential election even in the event of Maduro losing. Under the current rules, the vice president would be sworn in and the Socialist party would continue its presidential term for another two years.
Thousands of people participate in a referendum rally in Caracas last September. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA
“The CNE has been postponing and making up excuses as to why we can’t have our referendum,” says 21-year-old veterinary assistant Victoria Perez. Although hopeful that a referendum will be called, possibly even by the end of the year, the government’s ability to control the election processes worries her.
“The election officials belong to the government party, and it is completely biased towards them. Knowing this, it’s really hard to tell if a referendum will take place. But I need to protest so I can state my political rights. We won’t let the government sabotage us any longer.
“I am completely terrified to walk in the streets because of how dangerous it is, and when I do I am constantly stressed, looking around me to see if I’m being followed. After Maduro and the party is removed we will go through hard times trying to rebuild everything we lost in the years of this regime, from companies that left our country to our society’s morals.”
A Venezuelan opposition demonstrator poses with the word ‘freedom’ painted on his fists during a demonstration against the government. Photograph: Miguel Gutierrez/EPA
For a referendum to be called, Maduro’s opponents need to collect signatures from 20% of registered voters in each of Venezuela’s 23 states. The government will open voting machines for just seven hours a day and will provide only 5,400 machines — almost 15,000 fewer than requested.
But many opposition supporters have grown too disheartened to protest any more. English language teacher Jessica Guerra, 30, who works in Mérida, a small city in the Venezuelan Andes, believes that the government will do everything it can to make the referendum impossible.
“I have grown quite jaded of demonstrations. Nothing has really improved. As much as I would love to think of a referendum as a possibility, I am afraid the odds are against it. The CNE is supposed to be independent and its members are not supposed to be linked to any political party, but that is not the case. The institution has been accused of manipulating elections before in order to maintain the current government in power,” says Guerra. “I will hope for the best while expecting the worst.”
Claudia Ferrer, a 45-year-old former TV producer, thinks it is very unlikely there will be a referendum but will be joining the protest to show her disapproval.
Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro. Photograph: Mikhail Metzel/Tass
“A referendum is very unlikely, because the government controls the institutions that have to call the referendum and they know they will lose it. The government is even considering making the supreme court declare it unconstitutional, even though it is clearly stated in our constitution. Only international leverage can force them to accept it. We need to make the world know that we are demanding a constitutional democratic right,” she says.
Only scared old men, ugly three-year olds and people who haven’t been in Venezuela for years think Maduro is doing an admirable job. ~~ Jerry Nelson
Previous protests about the recall vote have turned violent, with demonstrators throwing stones and police using teargas on protesters. Alexis Reinefeld, 45, a former journalist living in Maracay, a city located 100km (60 miles) south-west of Caracas, says that the risk of violence will deter people from the demonstrations, hiding the true level of discontent within the country.
“I totally support the opposition but it’s too risky to go outside. There were many acts of violence during the last demonstration. Bands of armed bikers rode the main streets of Maracay robbing and hurting people. Police watched everything, but not a single biker was reported to be in jail for those acts of violence.
“I’m centre-leftist but never sympathised with Chávez or his ideas, not to mention Maduro’s interpretation of Chavism. There’s too much corruption and populism posing as social justice.
“A referendum would be a moral victory, in order to give people back the sense of living in a democracy because that’s something we have lost.”
Jerry Nelson is an American freelance writer, ghostwriter and content provider, now living the expat life in South America. Never without a cup of coffee or Marlboros, You can join the million-or-so who follow him on Twitter @ Journey_America and email him at email@example.com.
“McChavezmo” is his latest book about the political instability in South America and who is behind it.
Originally published at www.theguardian.com on October 12, 2016.