Control of socialist heartland at stake in Venezuelan vote

By Andreina Itriago Acosta

Venezuela’s government risks humiliation Sunday as voters infuriated by fuel shortages threaten to throw out the ruling party in the hot, cattle-farming region where the father of the nation’s socialist revolution was born.

Barinas state in western Venezuela was the birthplace of former President Hugo Chavez, and has been governed by his family for more than two decades. But that legacy came under threat after a voter rebellion in November nearly ousted the ruling party in the gubernatorial election, before the Supreme Court stepped in to halt the vote count that the opposition candidate was leading.

Residents must now choose between Jorge Arreaza, 48, a former foreign affairs minister who used to be married to one of Chavez’s daughters, and Sergio Garrido, 54, a local leader from Venezuela’s oldest political party. The opposition’s candidate from the first round, Freddy Superlano, was banned by the Supreme Court from running again, as was his wife and one other candidate. That left the opposition to field Garrido, their fourth choice.

Polls started to open at 6 a.m. and by mid-morning most were fully operative, with voters saying the process was quick and easy. Electoral centers were heavily guarded by the more than 24,000 security officials. According to an opposition spokesperson, participation had doubled during the first half of the day compared to the November election.

Despite some reports of coercion, including the presence of pro-government checkpoints called “red spots,” and the arrest of at least two opposition activists, no major incidents have been reported. Polls are scheduled to close at 6 p.m., or until there are no more voters standing in line. Preliminary results are expected on Sunday evening.

“We want a change for Barinas,” said Coromoto Pereira, an 80-year-old former nurse, outside a voting center in Barinas city. “We are tired of these people who have already ruled for 21 years. We hope that the results are respected.”

Barinas has been afflicted by blackouts and inflation like the rest of the nation, while the collapse of the currency has led many people to use not just dollars, but Colombian pesos. Locals say it is their inability to find gasoline and cooking gas that’s really stoked anger toward the ruling party.

“For the last four years we’ve had to queue for days just to get 30 liters of gasoline,” said Neir Fernandez, a 48-year-old farmer from Barinas.

President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime has spent large amounts of public money to try to hold on to power in Barinas, giving away goods such as refrigerators, mobile phones, school supplies and toys ahead of the vote, local people said. Government food packages are now arriving more frequently and include servings of meat, where previously they tended to mainly include items such as grains and maize flour. Fuel supplies are the best they’ve been in years.

While the government’s candidate speaks at big, well-funded rallies with a stage and large screens, the opposition candidate has given speeches from the back of a cattle truck, in the David versus Goliath contest.

Hugo Chavez’s father and two brothers have governed Barinas since Chavez became president in 1999. But after Gov. Argenis Chavez — a younger brother — performed poorly in the November vote, the ruling party replaced him with Arreaza.

There is also another opposition candidate, Claudio Fermin, which may split the anti-government vote.

The ruling party won 19 of 23 states in November in Venezuelan regional elections, but was stung by the turn of events in its symbolic heartland.

“We have lots of problems with electricity, sewers, water, food and fuel supply,” said Alexis Correa, a farmer in Chavez’s home town of Sabaneta, in an interview. “We’ve been set back 20 years here.”

Even the government’s most loyal supporters concede that not everything is rosy in the region, and many say that things got worse after Chavez passed away in 2013.

“After Hugo’s death, everything changed. There was a breakdown,” said Brigida Frias, Chavez’s great-aunt, in an interview in the backyard of her home two blocks from where the future president grew up.

Even so, Frias said she was campaigning for Arreaza.

Political repression and restrictions on expression made the vote unfair, the Carter Center wrote in a report. Despite that, voter rage was strong enough to offset the opposition’s disadvantages.

The Supreme Court’s decision to order a rerun of the vote when the opposition appeared to be winning “undermines Venezuela’s obligation to conduct genuinely democratic elections,” it said.

That makes Sunday’s vote the focus of debate as to whether Venezuela is able hold a fair vote, given the huge advantages enjoyed by the government through its grip on key institutions as well as its greater spending power.

Garrido advised locals to take whatever handouts they can get, but to vote against the ruling party just the same.

“They can give away whatever they want,” Garrido said Wednesday, in an interview in a cattle truck while he campaigned in the town of Pedraza. “We have told our people: grab everything, then punish them with your vote.”

Arreaza’s campaign declined a request for an interview.

“Barinas is a litmus test for the regime, because that symbolic state — the cradle of Hugo Chavez — has grown disenchanted with the Chavez family,” said Emilio Figueredo, a former ambassador for Venezuela at the United Nations. “The government will do the impossible, even if it’s illegal, not to lose it again.”

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