(CARACAS, Venezuela) — Venezuelans will head to the polls Sunday for a contested presidential election, one with incredibly high stakes and dismally low expectations.
The vote May 20 is the first time in just over five years that Venezuelans will get to choose a new president. Last time, in 2013, it was a special election following the death of socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Twenty years since Venezuelans put their hopes in Chavez and five years since his death, the country is consumed by one of the worst economic and humanitarian crises in the western hemisphere. Shortages of food and medicine have decimated the country, leaving an untold number dead or in deep poverty in what once was the richest country in South America.
But President Nicolas Maduro’s appeal is still significant among voters, especially those who benefited from Chavez’s education and poverty-reducing programs in the early 2000s. Maduro supporters attribute the current economic crisis to outside forces, including the effects of American sanctions on Venezuelan officials.
“The government of the United States is leading an economic war against Venezuela,” Maduro said recently during a show on Venezuela’s state-sponsored channel.
“Trust me … and I will defeat the economic mafias, the smugglers and this economic war, I swear,” he told supporters at a government rally on May Day.
Regional governments have called for Venezuela to cancel the election, while the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and several other Latin American nations have said they will not recognize the results. They claim a lack of transparency in the process and point to the difficulty in guaranteeing a free vote when Venezuela’s electoral council and all branches of government are controlled by Maduro’s party.
The election was originally planned for this December before a snap decision to move it to April, and then a compromise to postpone it to May.
Critics highlight the government’s control of food distribution as a reason why the elections are a fraud. Food has become the main bargaining chip in Venezuela’s current landscape — and the government’s control of food distribution has sparked worries that the government will try to buy votes with food or that voters will stay away from the polls due to fear of retribution if they don’t vote for Maduro.
Last year, Venezuela was consumed by street protests hoping to force Maduro’s resignation. Over 100 days of protests in the capital city of Caracas and across the country resulted in more than 124 deaths and thousands more injured, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. But even after months of protests, many Venezuelans still selected to move on with a government-sponsored constitutional assembly, effectively dissolving the then opposition-led legislature.
A splintered and effectively powerless opposition has fueled distrust among voters who want a change in government, turning voters and support away from even their most popular leaders. A decision from a coalition of opposition parties to boycott that vote and the constitutional assembly’s victory further solidified Maduro’s grip on power.
More than 5,300 protesters were detained, according to Foro Penal Venezolano, a Venezuelan legal aid group that documents human rights abuses and represented people who detained at the demonstrations.
Inflation is set to hit 13,000 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, which also predicts Venezuela’s economy will contract by 15 percent in 2018 — a record decline in gross domestic product of 50 percent in five years.
Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University and senior fellow at the Cato Institute who is doing daily measuring of hyperinflation in Venezuela, estimates prices of goods in the country double every 17.5 days.
“The little people really suffer the most. … All assets, even a bag of sugar is priced in dollars,” he told ABC News. “[People] are being paid in bolivars and the bolivars are essentially if not worthless when they receive them, they’re going to be worthless within a few days.”
Venezuela’s collapsing economy and humanitarian crisis have spilled to neighboring nations. About a million Venezuelans left the country from 2015 to 2017, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, and hundreds of thousands more have left in the first three months of this year.
About 280,000 have made it south to Peru, the country’s National Superintendent of Immigration told local media. ABC News has spoken to migrants who have saved for months to make the days-long trip — the calamities and uncertainty of life abroad paling in comparison to life in a nation in collapse.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, there are no term limits for the presidency. This means Maduro, or anyone elected, could get re-elected an unlimited number of times.
The government-aligned Supreme Court has banned the main opposition party, along with its leaders, from running for political office. Maduro’s opponent in 2013 — Henrique Capriles Radonski — is forbidden from seeking public office, as is opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who has been on house arrest since last summer after spending almost four years in a military jail.
With many opposition leaders out of the equation, three candidates will be on the ballot this Sunday:
NICOLAS MADURO: Maduro, 55, was Chavez’s handpicked successor who eked out a razor-thin win against Capriles Radonski in the special election of 2013. A former bus driver, he went on to become Chavez’s foreign minister and vice president before becoming acting president after Chavez’s death and later elected president in April 2013. Chavez’s memory looms large in the country, and many people see supporting Maduro as a way to keep Chavez’s memory and influence alive.
HENRI FALCON: A former governor of the western state of Lara, 56-year-old Falcon has long been a fixture of the Venezuelan political scene. A Chavez protege before defecting from the government’s party in 2010, Falcon worked with the opposition before setting off on his own for the election, which many opposition leaders are calling to boycott.
JAVIER BERTUCCI: The evangelical pastor says he’s running to restore the country’s values, and his campaign tactics are hitting Venezuelans where it matters most: their stomachs. Bertucci’s rallies have often looked more like a soup kitchen than a political event, and he’s seen an opening in capturing the votes from those who are disappointed at the government and feel disenfranchised by the opposition.
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