By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) – State workers in Venezuela are receiving frequent phone calls, pressure from bosses and threats of dismissal to ensure they vote in favor of President Nicolas Maduro’s controversial new congress on Sunday.
The unpopular leftist Maduro is pushing ahead with the election to create a powerful new legislature despite four months of deadly anti-government protests in the oil-rich South American nation, which is reeling from food shortages, runaway inflation and violent crime.
Maduro says the 545-seat Constituent Assembly, which will have the power to dissolve all other state institutions, will overcome the “armed insurrection” to bring peace to Venezuela. His opponents say it is a puppet institution designed to cement a dictatorship.
With surveys showing that almost 70 percent of Venezuelans oppose the assembly, the government wants to avoid embarrassingly low turnout in a ballot being boycotted by the opposition.
Pressure on state employees is higher than ever, according to interviews with two dozen workers at institutions ranging from state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) to the Caracas subway, as well as text messages, internal statements, and videos seen by Reuters.
“Any manager, superintendent, and supervisor who tries to block the Constituent Assembly, who does not vote, or whose staff does not vote, must leave his job on Monday,” a PDVSA vice-president, Nelson Ferrer, said during a meeting with workers this week, according to a summary circulated within the company and seen by Reuters.
In a video of a political rally at PDVSA, an unidentified company representative wearing the red shirt often worn by members of Maduro’s Socialist Party shouted into a microphone that employees who do not vote will be fired.
“We’re not joking around here,” he says.
Workers recount a laundry list of pressures: text messages every 30 minutes, phone calls, mandatory political rallies during work, requests that each worker enlist 10 others to vote, or orders to report back to a “situation room” after voting.
While it remains difficult to estimate how many of Venezuela’s 2.8 million state workers will vote, most interviewees said a significant majority probably will, either out of allegiance or out of fear.
Some Venezuelans also said Socialist Party operatives had threatened to stop distributing subsidized food bags to those who did not vote.
“I’ve seen a stream of people crying because they don’t know what to do. There’s so much fear,” said one PDVSA employee, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. PDVSA did not respond to a request for comment about Ferrer’s alleged remarks or wider pressures.
TO VOTE OR NOT TO VOTE?
After a brief coup against him and an oil strike over a decade ago, Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez increasingly staffed state institutions with his supporters.
Cheering government employees became fixtures at marches to defend the leftist firebrand’s “21st century Socialism”. PDVSA’s headquarters are still decorated with portraits of Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013.
Critics say unqualified political appointees have sunk the OPEC nation’s oil industry and spurred a brain drain.
Under Chavez’s less charismatic successor Maduro, the bolivar currency has plummeted and dragged down salaries to a few dozen U.S. dollars a month, fomenting discontent among the rank-and-file.
But, with the country of 30 million people submerged in a fourth straight year of recession, many employees stick to their posts because of health insurance, subsidized food or lack of other jobs.
Some employees said they would vote on Sunday to avoid the fate of those fired after a government lawmaker published a list of Venezuelans who signed a petition demanding a recall referendum against Chavez.
“My mother is ill, my wife is pregnant, and if I lose my job I’ll be even worse off than I am now. I need to go vote,” said a worker at Venezuelan steelmaker Sidor.
Other workers have decided to ignore phone calls and lay low on Sunday. Some are gambling that their bosses will be lenient, while others say they have compromising information about corruption or misdeeds that could protect them from dismissals.
A handful say they are willing to risk their jobs to oppose Maduro.
“We’re tired of working and working and still not being able to save. We can’t change cars or fix up our little house, let alone take a vacation,” said the director of a public school, once comfortably in the middle class.
“We’re ready to assume the consequences of not voting.”
(Additional reporting by Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo, Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Anggy Polanco in San Crsitobal, and Deisy Buitrago and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by James Dalgleish)