IUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela — Sunday, May 20, 5 a.m. The military has already closed all the streets near voting centers, including mine. This is typical on Election Day. Also typical on Election Day is the sound of the military trumpet, the “toque de diana,” at the break of dawn. I’m looking out the balcony window of my apartment thinking it’ll ring out any second now.
I’ve never liked that trumpet; it seems much too militaristic for an occasion that should be just civilian. But the military pretty much rules Venezuela now.
I don’t want to vote. I really don’t. At the same time, I’m tired of not doing anything, so maybe I should vote. There aren’t many protests against the government these days, and the opposition didn’t actively organize to prevent the election.
Two candidates are running against President Nicolás Maduro, but the system is so rigged that they don’t have a chance. Anyway, one is an evangelical (Javier Bertucci), and the other is an ex-supporter of our late former president Hugo Chávez (Henri Falcón). The main opposition coalition, Frente Amplio Venezuela Libre, or the “Broad Front for a Free Venezuela,” just wants people like me to stay home. I wish no one but Maduro was participating at all, and that the entire opposition had rallied to call for a proper boycott.
Six o’clock, still no trumpet. I think: “See? These aren’t real elections.” I’m still trying to convince myself that it’s OK to not participate in this thing.
I spent all day on May 19 talking to people I know, on the phone and in person, and all of them were like me: They hadn’t made up their minds about what to do, let alone chosen a candidate. The government has made sure to bar all the good candidates; the ones left are opportunists. Who runs in an election after Broad Front and the Lima Group, a coalition of governments in the Americas, said it couldn’t be free and fair? And who wants to vote for those candidates? No one I know, apparently.
So, I have a mission on May 20: I want to find someone who truly cares about this election. Schools are used as voting centers, and my plan is to visit four within walking distance of my home.
I live in a sprawling middle-class neighborhood of three-story buildings, mostly residential with some small businesses. Although the anti-Chavistas usually win here, it’s always a close call.
I go out at about 9 a.m., and the streets are empty. No cars — sure; after all, the streets are closed off. But there are no pedestrians either. And no flags.
I get to the Simón Rodríguez high school. There are “Vote for Falcón” graffiti on a wall outside. Two soldiers with assault rifles are talking at the entrance. But that’s about it, as far as human life goes. You can’t see the voting station from the outside, and before being allowed in I’d have to decide to vote. The only car parked in front is a military car.
Normally, especially in a presidential election, you’d see the line of voters stretch to the corner and then across the street. And you’d see street vendors fighting for space on the sidewalk to sell cigarettes, coffee, chips, lollipops, ice cream and cakes. I know because this is my polling station, and though I’m just 25 years old, I’ve already voted here four times.
There should also be loud music coming from houses, the national flag hanging from windows and people dressed in Venezuela’s colors, inviting others to vote and taking pictures to post on Facebook. But today the street is empty — well, aside from the handful of people in the distance gathered around a truck selling plantains.
That’s when I notice the canopy in the parking lot in front of the school, and under it some people
at plastic tables with clipboards. It’s what the government calls a “Red Spot,” set up to track who has voted. You’re supposed to go there to show government employees a ticket proving that you cast your ballot, as well as your “homeland card.” They add your name to a database that can then be checked by public servants — who are known to have used such information to pressure people, including in order to withhold access to food aid, despite major shortages, or other government services.
Red Spots should be illegal, but our electoral council doesn’t care too much about enforcing electoral rules these days.
There is no line there either, even though our dictator has promised people who vote a “prize from the motherland” — meaning, money? No one really knows. The four attendants look bored.
The next polling center seems even more deserted. I see no voter there, and just one guard, not two, at the entrance, who when he notices me pull out my phone, cautions me against taking a picture of the empty entrance.
My next, and now last, stop is a kindergarten, and the biggest polling station in the area. This will be my final destination: I’ve decided to skip the third on my itinerary because since this center always is the most crowded one in the neighborhood, if it’s empty, then they all are.
When I arrive there, I see one man getting out as another man is getting in. There is also a member of the Bolivarian militia, a volunteer civilian force created by Chávez to protect the homeland, talking to two men on the street corner. There were a few cars, civilian cars, parked close to the school, and even someone selling coffee.
A lady comes out of the voting center — my first voter of the day. I approach her.
“So, how was it?”
She is short and has a big black purse. “It was fast. The machines are working fine.”
“And who did you vote for?”
“The vote is secret.” She walks off.
Now I see a man checking the fence on which hang the lists that tell you at which table you need to vote.
“Who are you voting for?” I ask.
“For that Bertucci guy. And you?”
“Me? I don’t even know if I’m voting.”
“We cannot gift them the election. At least let’s make them steal it.”
I’m starting to get looks from the Bolivarian militia guy on the corner, so I stop talking to this man; I’m not taking any risks for a nonelection.
I go to the Red Spot. Five attendants. Two people signing papers.
I approach the one government employee, a woman, who’s standing up: “How’s the day been? How’s attendance?”
“It’s calm right now.” At this point, it’s 11 a.m.
“Earlier there were more. And people will start arriving again when the voting center is about to close. You’ll see.”
According to her, I’m both too late and too early. All I know is that after a few hours of walking my neighborhood looking for voters, I haven’t encountered one who actually seemed to care about the election. My mission has been failure.
On the other hand, it has helped me make up my mind: If so many others are abstaining from voting, then I, too, will abstain. At least the result of all that might look like an actual strategy.
On my way home, I walk through the municipal market, and there, there is life. It’s loud, and busy with people. Some are selling plantains, yuccas and onions, or cheese, or homemade corn dough, or deodorant and toothpaste, which you can’t find in the supermarkets anymore. Others are counting stack after stack of worthless bank notes.
There’s one guy selling coffee; he grinds the beans right in front of you. I count. He has a line of 43 people — more than all the voting centers I visited this morning combined.
(Carlos Hernández is an economist and a contributor to Caracas Chronicles.)