After re-election, Venezuela’s Maduro faces overseas condemnation

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro raises a finger as he is surrounded by supporters while speaking during a gathering after the results of the election were released, outside of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela, May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Alexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro faced international condemnation on Monday after his re-election in a vote foes denounced as a farce that cemented autocracy in the crisis-stricken oil-producing nation.

Maduro, 55, hailed his win in Sunday’s vote as a victory against “imperialism,” but his main rival alleged irregularities and refused to recognize the result.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition boycotted the election, given that two of its most popular leaders were barred from running, authorities had banned the coalition and various of its parties from using their names, and the election board is run by Maduro loyalists. Turnout was under 50 percent.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red berets, hugged and danced outside the Miraflores presidential palace, showered in confetti in the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan national flag.

“The revolution is here to stay!” a jubilant Maduro told the crowd, promising to prioritize economic recovery after five years of recession in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.

“Let’s go, Nico!” his supporters chanted until after midnight during party scenes in downtown Caracas.

“We mustn’t cave to any empire, or go running to the International Monetary Fund as Argentina did. The opposition must leave us alone to govern,” said government supporter Ingrid Sequera, 51. She wore a T-shirt with a logo featuring the eyes of Maduro’s socialist predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

Senior U.S. State Department officials declared Sunday’s vote a “sham” and repeated threats to impose sanctions on Venezuela’s all-important oil sector, which is already reeling from falling output, a brain-drain and creaking infrastructure.

Spain, which has led European Union criticism of Maduro, also weighed in. “Venezuela’s electoral process has not respected the most basic democratic standards. Spain and its European partners will study appropriate measures and continue to work to alleviate Venezuelans’ suffering,” tweeted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In a blistering statement, the 14-nation “Lima Group” of countries in the Americas from Canada to Brazil, said it did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote and would be downgrading diplomatic relations.

The group deplored Venezuela’s “grave humanitarian situation” behind a migrant exodus, and promised to help coordinate with international financial bodies to crack down on corruption and block loans to the government.

However, regional leftist allies of Venezuela, from Cuba to Bolivia, sent their congratulations. China and Russia, which have both poured money into Venezuela in recent years, were also unlikely to join in the international condemnation.

‘TRAGIC CYCLE’ FOR VENEZUELA

The election board said Maduro won 5.8 million votes, versus 1.8 million for his chief challenger Henri Falcon, a former governor who broke with the opposition boycott to stand.

Turnout was 46 percent, the election board said, way down from the 80 percent at the last presidential vote in 2013. Suggesting turnout was even lower, an electoral board source told Reuters 32.3 percent of eligible voters cast ballots by 6 p.m. (2200 GMT) as most polls shut.

The government used ample state resources during the campaign and state workers were pressured to vote.

Falcon called for a new vote, complaining about the government’s placing of nearly 13,000 pro-government stands called “red spots” close to polling stations nationwide.

Mainly poor Venezuelans lined up to scan state-issued “fatherland cards” at red tents after voting, in hope of receiving a “prize” promised by Maduro.

The “fatherland cards” are required to receive benefits including food boxes and money transfers.

Some anti-government activists said the opposition coalition should have fielded a candidate regardless of how uneven the playing field might be. But the opposition coalition, which has been divided for most of the duration of the ‘Chavismo’ movement founded by Chavez after he took office in 1999, appeared united after the vote and said its boycott strategy had paid off.

“I implore Venezuelans not to become demoralized, today Maduro is weaker than ever before. We’re in the final phase of a tragic cycle for our country. The fraud has been exposed and today the world will reject it,” tweeted opposition leader Julio Borges.

It was not yet clear what strategy the opposition would now adopt, but major protests seem unlikely given widespread disillusionment and fatigue. Caracas was calm and many of its streets were empty on Monday morning.

Protesters did, however, barricade some streets in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz, drawing teargas from National Guard soldiers, witnesses said.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES

Maduro, who faces a colossal task turning around Venezuela’s moribund economy, has offered no specifics on changes to two decades of state-led policies. The bolivar currency is down 99 percent over the past year and inflation is at an annual 14,000 percent, according to the National Assembly.

Furthermore, Venezuela’s multiple creditors are considering accelerating claims on unpaid foreign debt, while oil major ConocoPhillips has been taking aggressive action in recent weeks against state oil company PDVSA, as part of its claim for compensation over a 2007 nationalization of its assets in Venezuela.

Though increasingly shunned in the West, Maduro can at least count on the support of China and Russia, which have provided billions of dollars’ funding in recent years.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China believed the Venezuelan government and people could handle their own affairs and that everyone should respect the choice of the Venezuelan people.

Asked if China had sent congratulations to Maduro, he said China would “handle this in accordance with diplomatic convention,” but did not elaborate.

 

 

(Reporting by Aexandra Ulmer and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Ciudad Guayana; Luc Cohen in Caracas; Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Marco Aquino in Lima; and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Angus Berwick and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry)

Exclusive: In run-up to Venezuelan vote, more soldiers dissent and desertion

Soldiers stand in formation before the start of a ceremony to kick off the distribution of security forcers and voting materials to be used in the upcoming presidential elections, at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela May 15, 2018. Pictures taken on May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Girish Gupta and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Arrests for rebellion and desertion are rising sharply in Venezuela’s armed forces, a mainstay of President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, amid discontent within the ranks at food shortages and dwindling salaries, according to documents and interviews with army personnel.

Internal military documents reviewed by Reuters showed that the number of soldiers detained for treason, rebellion and desertion rose to 172 in the first four months of the year, up three-and-a-half times on the same period of 2017.

Former military officials said the figures reflected a dramatic increase in the level of dissent within Venezuela’s once-proud armed forces. In the whole of 2017, a total of 196 soldiers were arrested on similar charges, according to the same documents.

As Venezuela prepares to vote on Sunday in presidential elections, which the opposition says have been rigged to consolidate Maduro’s grip on power, the role of the security forces will be under scrutiny.

More than 300,000 soldiers and police will stand watch at polling stations. But behind what will likely be impassive faces some soldiers are planning how to flee the country or fretting about how to feed their families on a minimum salary of just $2 a day, according to interviews with serving and former soldiers.

“It’s so demoralizing to open the fridge and see it empty of meat, fish, chicken, ham, cheese and other basics,” said a 42-year-old National Guard sergeant major with more than 20 years of service, asking for his name not to be used.

“When I joined, I used to buy furniture for the house and clothes for the family with my Christmas bonus. Now it gets me three cartons of eggs and two kilos of sugar,” he said in the border city of San Cristobal.

The Defense Ministry and government did not respond to a request for comment. They say military dissent is isolated among a few individuals rather than being a systemic problem.

FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE

During months of opposition protests last year, National Guard members were Maduro’s first line of defense against protesters, firing tear gas and rubber bullets as rocks and Molotov cocktails were hurled toward them. At least 125 people, including some soldiers and police, were killed.

But privately, some acknowledged even then being exhausted, impoverished, hungry and even sympathetic towards demonstrators.

As Venezuela’s economic crisis has dramatically worsened – with annual inflation hitting nearly 14,000 percent according to the opposition-controlled National Assembly – soldiers and police have joined the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans pouring into neighboring South American countries.

Gerson Medina, a 36-year-old policeman from the border state of Tachira, said he left for Peru last year after political differences with his superiors.

“Sadly, security forces will continue to leave for Latin America and Europe because these elections are trying to demonstrate a false democracy in Venezuela,” he said in a phone interview.

Maduro’s government has said the elections are transparent and has accused the opposition of not participating solely because it knows it will lose.

While there is no firm data on departures from Venezuela’s 120,000-strong armed forces, interviews with serving and former soldiers, as well as internal military documents indicate hundreds if not more have left in the last year.

Since former soldier Hugo Chavez swept to power in an election in 1998 amid popular anger with Venezuela’s ruling elite, the military has played a leading role in the two-decade-old Socialist Revolution.

Under his successor Maduro, senior military officers have assumed prominent and lucrative roles running several ministries as well as state oil company PDVSA and a state food distribution program.

In public, the military top brass is standing by Maduro and ignoring appeals from the opposition to intervene to prevent what they say is a consolidation of dictatorship.

However, Maduro’s government refers frequently to foiled coup plots against it and it has quelled some small but high-profile rebellions within the security forces.

Last year, rogue police officer Oscar Perez hijacked a helicopter and fired at government buildings in what he said was an action against a dictator. Perez was hunted down and killed by Venezuelan forces in January.

A National Guard captain, Juan Carlos Caguaripano, early last year attacked a military base with a group of current and former military officials. He was captured soon after.

“The same thing is happening in the barracks as is happening in the slums: people are going hungry; they are suffering an overwhelming crisis,” said Henri Falcon, a former soldier who has bucked the broad opposition boycott and is Maduro’s primary opponent in the election.

Maduro, expected to win on Sunday, has said that he is the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth.

MILITARY OUSTER

In August, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened military intervention in Venezuela – a move that would likely prove unpopular with neighboring governments in a region wary of American intervention.

However, in February, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested the Venezuelan military might decide to oust Maduro.

“Whether he meant to or not, Tillerson was signaling U.S. pre-acceptance of a military coup to remove Maduro,” said a former senior CIA official speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of the biggest ‘U.S.-supported’ actions were not done by people we hired and trained for the task. They were done by fence-sitters who, once they saw we would approve, made their move,” the official said.

Some investors in recent weeks have even bought Venezuela’s defaulted debt on speculation that Maduro’s reelection could prompt the military to intervene to prevent economic collapse.

Venezuela is no stranger to military coups.

Then-paratrooper Chavez attempted to seize power militarily in 1992 though failed. It was soon after that attempt that he and Maduro became close.

A decade later, as president, Chavez was himself ousted from power for a couple of days by military officers and business leaders.

Herbert Garcia, a former senior army general and government minister who split with Maduro and now lives in the United States, said a successful uprising did not look imminent.

“In order for a military coup to succeed, political coordination with a strong, credible and united opposition must exist. It doesn’t,” he told Reuters, referring to the country’s fragmented political opposition.

Meanwhile, some soldiers in Venezuela admit their unhappiness but want to stick around in the military.

“We cannot be happy with this situation, I love my country and I’m not leaving,” said one National Guard soldier, with more than a decade of service, standing at a command post in Tachira. “I’ll be here to turn off the light when everyone has gone.”

See graphics on upcoming elections in Latin America http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/VENEZUELA-ELECTION-ABSTENTION/0100700M01D/index.html and in Venezuela http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/VENEZUELA-ELECTION/0100703N08H/index.html.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Leon Wiefeld Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Inmates revolt at Venezuela detention center, Utah man pleads for help

Relatives of inmates react outside a detention center of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), where a riot occurred, according to relatives, in Caracas, Venezuela May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Luc Cohen and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Inmates at a crowded Caracas detention center revolted on Wednesday, with jailed opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a Mormon missionary from Utah begging for freedom and medical attention in postings on social media.

There was no official information on the incident, but in videos posted on social media men identifying themselves as prisoners said they had taken over the headquarters of intelligence agency Sebin, known as the Helicoide, where hundreds of people are held.

“This has been taken over peacefully by all the political prisoners and all the prisoners who are abducted here, who are tortured daily,” a man said in one of the videos. He said tear gas and weapons had been fired at detainees but they were holding out to demand freedom.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the origin of the videos or circumstances under which they were made.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab tweeted, “In the face of the events that happened today in the Sebin headquarters at the Helicoide, we sent a commission of the prosecutor’s office to the facility. That delegation spoke to a representative of the prisoners to respond to their requests.”

In a midafternoon Facebook post, Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen and missionary whose family has said he was framed on weapons charges while in Venezuela for his wedding, said, “Helicoide the prison where I am at has fallen the guards are here and people are trying to break in my room and kill me. WHAT DO WE DO?”

In a video seen on Twitter late on Wednesday Holt said, “I’m here to show you that I am not being kidnapped. The only people who are kidnapping me is the government of Venezuela. We need the people to help us.” He was flanked by three other men.

He said all four of them were being detained without trial and that some detainees were being denied medical attention.

His mother Laurie Holt told Reuters that she did not know the sequence of the videos and was unable to confirm Holt’s current situation.

Activists said the incident had been precipitated by the beating of activist Gregory Sanabria from the state of Tachira. He appeared with a bruised face in pictures on social media.

Rights groups and Maduro opponents have said several hundred political prisoners have been unfairly jailed. Maduro has said all jailed activists were being held on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

The U.S. embassy in Caracas said it was “very worried” about the situation at the Helicoide.

“Joshua Holt and other U.S. citizens are in danger. The Venezuelan government is directly responsible for their security and we will hold them responsible if anything happens to them,” the embassy tweeted in Spanish.

Todd Robinson, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, went to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry for information, the embassy added. “No response from the government.”

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

A Venezuelan paradox: Maduro’s critics long for change but won’t vote

A motorcycle passes graffiti painted on a fence in Caracas, Venezuela May 12, 2018. Graffiti reads: "Do not vote, please I beg you". Picture taken on May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Months before Venezuela’s opposition coalition called for abstention in Sunday’s presidential election, college student Ana Romano had already decided not to vote.

While volunteering as a witness in October’s election for state governors, Romano said, she lost count of the number of times activists for the ruling Socialist Party walked into voting booths on the pretext of “assisting” voters – a tactic the opposition says is illegal intimidation.

Romano said pro-government workers at the voting center in the rural state of Portuguesa also refused to close its doors at 6:00 p.m. as per regulations, keeping it open for an extra hour while Socialist Party cadres rounded up votes.

Her experience illustrates why some in Venezuela’s opposition say they will boycott Sunday’s presidential vote despite anger at the South American nation’s unraveling under unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

“It was four of them against me and I was 20 years old: I couldn’t do anything,” Romano said, adding that she did not file an official report because the other poll center workers would not have signed it – and because there was no paper available to do so.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with this upcoming election,” Romano said. “We’ve already made that mistake.”

Reuters could not independently verify details of her account. Venezuela’s National Electoral Council – the government body in charge of organizing elections – did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Venezuela, a once-wealthy OPEC nation, is suffering hyperinflation and widespread food shortages as its economy collapses, leading hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring countries.

Yet, despite popularity ratings languishing around 20 percent, Maduro is expected to secure a second, six-year term in his deeply divided country, in part due to low opposition turnout.

Some opposition members say participation would be pointless in the face of efforts to tilt the playing field in favor of Maduro, a former union leader who was elected in 2013 after the death of his mentor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

They cite tactics ranging from the kind of small-scale election-center tricks described by Romano to the detention of the most prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the coercion of government workers to vote for Maduro and the heavy use of state resources in his campaign.

Many in the opposition say there are inadequate guarantees of a free and fair vote: they point to a ban on Western election observers. The government says they would violate its national sovereignty.

The Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, an independent local election monitoring group, has also flagged problems that include an inadequate timeframe to update the electoral register and develop a network of poll center witnesses, and a reduction in real-time audits of results.

Washington, which has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government, has said it will not recognize the results of Sunday’s vote.

Breaking the opposition boycott is former state governor Henri Falcon. Opposition leaders have attacked Falcon – a former Chavez ally or ‘Chavista’ – as a stooge who is only running to legitimize Maduro’s reelection.

Falcon, an ex-soldier and two-time governor of Lara state, counters that they are ceding power to Maduro without a fight and insists he would win if discontented Venezuelans turned out to vote.

“So now I’m a ‘Chavista’ just because I have common sense, because I take a clear position and because I act responsibly toward my country?” Falcon said when asked recently by reporters about the opposition’s criticism.

Falcon’s camp was not immediately available for comment for this story.

Maduro and allies deny the elections are unfair and insist the fractured opposition was beaten in October because its voters did not participate – an argument supported by statistics showing low turnout in its strongholds.

“We have an advantage, which is the strength of the people. That can’t be called an unfair advantage,” Maduro said last month.

Participation forecasts vary but, in general, pollsters believe turnout for Sunday’s vote will be far lower than the 80 percent in the last presidential elections in 2013, when Maduro narrowly defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who is banned from running this time.

One survey by respected pollster Datanalisis showed that the number of people who said they were “very likely” to vote – its most accurate indicator of how many people will participate – had fallen close to 30 percent in March.

In the Caracas slum of La Vega, Jose Vasquez, 49, described the election as too unfair to warrant participation.

“It’s like a game in which the referee is a family member of the other team’s captain,” said Vasquez, selling 40 gram (1 oz) bags of coffee and sugar on a small table in the street. “Why would I waste my time?

ELECTORAL OBSTACLE COURSE

During his 14 years as president, Chavez racked up repeated ballot-box victories thanks to his charisma and generous spending of Venezuela’s oil revenues – much of it on popular health and nutrition programs, as well as on his own electoral campaigns.

The opposition has cried fraud in the past without demonstrating evidence of it, including after a 2004 recall referendum that Chavez won.

But October’s vote included one incident that some opposition sympathizers see as a tipping point: election officials manually changed results at several voting centers in Bolivar state to tip the result in favor of the Socialist Party candidate, according to election center witnesses.

The witnesses produced official poll statements from their voting centers showing that the number of votes for the opposition candidate was higher than those reflected in the National Electoral Council figures for those same centers.

The elections council – stacked with Maduro’s supporters – has never clarified the issue and did not answer Reuters questions regarding the incident.

Maduro’s government has never commented.

More commonly, the opposition has complained of obstacles that reduce the likelihood of their supporters voting but are difficult to classify as fraud in a traditional sense – such as last-minute changes to the location of voting centers.

In the central state of Lara, Alfredo Alvarez learned just days before the October vote that the elections council had changed his voting center – along with that of an estimated 700,000 Venezuelans in 200 voting centers in predominantly opposition areas.

Alvarez, a 62-year-old journalist, had to drive around the city of Barquisimeto for several hours because he could not get a clear answer on where he was supposed to vote.

“I had to investigate: I had to go to five different voting centers. Who can vote under those conditions?” asked Alvarez, who said he ultimately cast his ballot in a polling center run by Socialist Party activists that had no opposition witnesses.

“I’ve been voting since 1973, but I’m not voting in this election. Not under these circumstances.”

Election officials said the changes were necessary primarily because of security concerns, given that some of the centers were near the site of violent opposition protests. Those protests had ended nearly three months before.

Electoral Council officials were not immediately available to explain that discrepancy.

(For a graphic on ‘Latin America’s upcoming elections’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rAQ4l1)

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth, additional reporting by Miguel Angel Sulabaran, Maria de los Angeles Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Vivian Sequera in Turmero; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

Who needs Chavez? Venezuela’s leader pushes own image in campaign

By Andrew Cawthorne and Francisco Aguilar

CARACAS/BARINAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – During his 2013 presidential campaign, Nicolas Maduro opened rallies with an emotional recording of Venezuela’s national anthem sung by the recently-deceased Hugo Chavez.

In a strategy that earned him a narrow victory, Maduro surrounded himself with images of the popular former president, played footage of his socialist mentor anointing him as successor, and proclaimed himself “the son of Chavez.”

This time around, in a strangely unanimated presidential race boycotted by the mainstream opposition, Maduro has deliberately relegated the Chavez props.

Ignoring his personal unpopularity, fueled by rising hunger and violent crime as the oil-reliant economy implodes, the 55-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister has placed himself front-and-center of the campaign for the May 20 vote.

At rallies, he dances to a catchy reggaeton tune “Todos con Maduro” (Everyone with Maduro), amid huge ‘M’ banners on stage.

Crowds wave pictures of his beaming mustachioed visage, albeit sometimes with Chavez’s face floating above him.

“Our commander (Chavez) left us, but we must carry on the fight, don’t leave me alone!” Maduro implored at a recent rally. “Five years ago, I was a novice candidate. No more. Now I am a mature president, ready, experienced, with the balls to confront the oligarchy and imperialism.”

Maduro’s approach seems a bold one. Polls show the defunct Chavez is still the most popular political figure by far, while the incumbent president’s own ratings have sunk – along with Venezuela’s economy.

Yet the strategy reflects Maduro’s absolute confidence of winning a new six-year term.

And why not? The two most popular opposition figures are barred from the election, state resources are at his service, loyalists control potentially pesky bodies like the judiciary and election board, and the opposition has split bitterly over whether to abstain from the vote.

Furthermore, within the ruling “Chavismo” movement, Maduro outmaneuvered would-be rivals, such as powerful party No. 2 Diosdado Cabello, to make his candidacy a fait accompli.

Maduro’s consolidation of power began with the 2017 defeat of opposition protests, then a purge this year of former Chavez loyalists critical of him, like former oil czar Rafael Ramirez.

Now Maduro wants to drive home the advantage, trying to establish his own brand above government power struggles.

OPTIONS LIMITED

“For good or for bad, Maduro is the only major political figure on the scene right now,” said Hebert Garcia, a former general and minister who split with Maduro several years ago.

“So this election is like putting an image in front of someone and saying ‘choose’ – but there’s no one else to choose from!” he said from the United States, where he works as a consultant, evading corruption charges by the Maduro government.

There are several other names on the ballot sheet – former state governor Henri Falcon and evangelical Christian pastor Javier Bertucci being the most prominent. But many opposition supporters see them as stooges and “collaborators” participating in a sham to legitimize Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Some polls actually give a lead to Falcon, who broke with the mainstream opposition’s boycott of the vote.

But the widespread abstention anticipated, Maduro’s formidable political machinery, the vote-winning power of state handouts, coercion of government employees, and the pro-Maduro makeup of the election board make Falcon’s task Herculean.

As confident as Maduro may appear right now on the political stage, his Achilles Heel remains the economy.

Venezuela is suffering a fifth year of recession with a double-digit contraction expected for 2018, inflation is the highest in the world, and the minimum monthly salary is worth barely $2 at the black market exchange rate.

Scarcity of food and medicines is widespread, and hundreds of thousands have left the country in recent years – increasingly by foot, bus and even bicycle.

CRISIS MAY DEEPEN

So Maduro will still have a crisis on his hands even if he wins. Washington is threatening to add oil sanctions to existing measures to stop Venezuela from issuing new debt, while restive creditors are considering more aggressive tactics.

There are no signs of reforms to the failing state-led economic model.

Maduro’s campaign mantra is to blame everyone from U.S. President Donald Trump to the local business community for the economic mess, ignoring the damage caused by botched nationalizations and dysfunctional currency controls.

Apart from promising a Utopian economic “rebirth”, he has given few details on his post-election plans. Many fear further retrenchment and moves against business such as last week’s 90-day seizure of the nation’s largest private bank.

Maduro’s election rallies around the country are notably smaller, more strictly corralled and shorter than in 2013. Away from the obediently ecstatic front rows, there is plenty of grumbling by unhappy Venezuelans.

“It’s the most flavorless and colorless campaign for at least 20 years,” scoffed former oil minister Ramirez, who had wanted to stand as the candidate of “Chavismo” but is instead in exile in an undisclosed foreign location.

At one recent campaign rally in Barinas state, flustered organizers hit the phones to try to boost numbers. A visibly irritated Maduro blamed poor turnout on rain – even though it only started falling after the event, witnesses said.

“I came to see what he would say about fixing the economy,” said Aparicio Teran, a 49-year-old peasant farmer, who like many in the agricultural savannah state is struggling for lack of bank loans, pesticides and cattle feed.

“I’m leaving without hearing anything about credits, fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, food for the cows. We can’t go on like this. All we can look forward to is hunger.”

Though food has become Venezuelans’ No. 1 worry, many see no option but to vote for Maduro – in part to guarantee receiving state-subsidized food bags that millions depend on.

And Maduro still has core support among about one-fifth of Venezuelans, who swear loyalty to Chavez’s legacy come what may.

“The entire people is fighting for its future, against the destructive policies of U.S. imperialism and its European allies, against the blockade (sanctions) and against the economic war,” said Carlos Marquez, 24, in Barinas, wearing the red cap and T-shirt associated with diehard “Chavistas.”

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Daniel Flynn and Paul Simao)

Venezuela’s Maduro defies foreign censure, offers ‘prize’ to voters

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a campaign rally in La Guaira, Venezuela May 2, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera and Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro scoffed at international criticism of Venezuela’s upcoming May 20 vote in which he is seeking re-election and offered a prize for those who vote with a state-issued card.

Venezuela’s mainstream opposition is boycotting the election on the grounds it is rigged in favor of the 55-year-old socialist incumbent. The United States, European Union and various Latin American neighbors have also slammed it as unfair.

“So they’re not going to recognize Maduro around the world. What the hell do I care?” Maduro said at an election rally in La Guaira, on the coast outside Caracas, late on Wednesday. “What the hell do I care what Europe and Washington say?”

Maduro, who is casting his re-election campaign as a battle against imperialist powers bent on seizing Venezuela’s oil wealth, has only one serious rival: Henri Falcon, 56, a former state governor. Falcon has broken with the opposition coalition’s boycott of the vote, believing anger at a economic crisis will win him votes.

OPEC member Venezuela is in a fifth year of punishing recession, inflation is the highest in the world, oil production is at a three-decade low, shortages of food and medicines are widespread, and millions are skipping meals.

Some polls show Falcon more popular than Maduro, who narrowly won election to replace Hugo Chavez in 2013.

But the opposition abstention campaign, presence of Maduro loyalists in key institutions including the election board, and vote-winning power of state welfare programs like housing and food giveaways makes a Falcon victory look a tall order.

In his speech, Maduro told supporters that all those who vote showing a government-issued “Fatherland Card,” which is needed to access certain welfare programs, probably would receive “a really good prize.”

He did not give details but critics say that, and other pre-election cash and other bonuses via the card, is akin to vote bribery. Voting in Venezuela is secret but state workers say they are constantly pressured to support the government.

FALCON SEEKS ALLIES

Falcon, a former soldier, has been largely shunned by Venezuela’s best-known opposition leaders but this week received the support of at least one high-profile leader, Enrique Marquez, who is vice president of A New Time party.

He also has been wooing twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles to join his campaign but without success so far. Capriles, and another popular opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, are both barred from standing in the election.

Maduro says Venezuela’s election system is the cleanest in the world but even the official operator of the voting platform, UK-based Smartmatic, denounced fraud in an election last August. Little is known about the Argentine company that has replaced it for this month’s election.

If Maduro does win re-election, attention will turn immediately to whether he plans to use the political breathing space to deepen an internal purge of rivals, and if the United States will carry out a threat to impose oil sanctions.

President Donald Trump’s administration already has imposed some financial and individual sanctions on Maduro’s government, accusing senior officials of rights abuses and corruption.

Pro-boycott opposition activists have been stepping up their campaign in recent days with scattered protests around the country. Numbers, however, have been thin – a far cry from the mass anti-Maduro protests of 2017.

“Those who participate with Maduro in the May 20 farce, including Henri Falcon and (evangelical pastor) Javier Bertucci, have split with Venezuelan patriots and democrats,” an opposition grouping called the Wide Front said in a statement.

“By recognizing false results, they will become a collaborationist opposition recognized by the regime so it can outlaw and persecute democratic society.”

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Bill Trott)

Dentists, soldiers mix cocktails to leave crisis-hit Venezuela

Carlos Alzaibar takes documents as he packs his suitcase at his home in Caracas, Venezuela March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos

CARACAS (Reuters) – Like many young Venezuelans in recent years, dentist Carlos Alzaibar felt forced to leave the country when he could scrape together only a few dollars equivalent each month doing two jobs.

So on a recent day, just before flying to Madrid, he was sadly packing a red suitcase – while stacking diplomas from a half a dozen trades he picked up in the last year from bakery and bartending to photography and burger-flipping.

Those, he hoped, would help him find work in Spain and fund the medicines his mother needs for a kidney transplant.

“If not, she’s going to die,” Alzaibar, 28, said, folding socks and shirts in his family’s middle-class Caracas apartment.

Droves of Venezuelans, including professionals like Alzaibar and even retired soldiers and prosecutors, have been taking short courses to prepare for life abroad.

Suffering a severe economic crisis that has left many people short of food and basics, nearly a million Venezuelans have departed since 2015, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, calls it one of the biggest population flows in its nearly 70-year history.

The OPEC nation sits on the world’s largest oil supplies, but has seen annual production slump to a three-decade low, along with a four-year economic recession.

COCKTAILS AND COFFEE

Valentina Maggi, 22, studied graphic design and dreams of illustrating children’s stories, but has followed in friends’ footsteps to learn how to mix cocktails at the National Bartender Academy.

“I have many friends who have left the country and have told me to do this type of course because when you get there, you have more work options,” she said in a room with a long table where she had just completed her final test: a Gin Fizz made from gin, lemon, sugar and soda water.

At the academy, 6,000 students are expected to graduate this year – up from 4,500 a couple of years ago.

With Maggi were a 60-year-old retired military officer and a 52-year-old former Supreme Court prosecutor, both hoping to land work at bars in the United States and Argentina respectively.

Asking not to disclose his name for fear of reprisal, the former soldier said his monthly pension of some $5 at the black market exchange rate, left nothing for food after paying for his two sons’ schools.

Venezuela’s economic meltdown is one of the worst slumps in modern Latin American history.

Gross domestic product is shrinking on a scale akin to that of the United States during the Great Depression and inflation is the highest in the world, nearly 9,000 percent annually, according to National Assembly data.

A monthly minimum wage is worth less than a carton of eggs.

While critics lambaste President Nicolas Maduro for failed socialist economic policies and corruption, he says a U.S.-led “economic war” including financial sanctions are to blame.

“From six or eight months ago, everyone’s getting ready to go,” said Pietro Carbone, surrounded by the aroma of freshly crushed coffee beans at his barista training center where places are fully booked for the next three months.

(Reporting by Andreina Aponte and Liamar Ramos; Additional reporting by Efrain Otero; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney; Twitter: @ReutersVzla, @jammastergirish)

Venezuelan schools emptying as Chavez legacy under threat

Juliani Caceres, grand daughter of Carmen Penaloza, have rice and platain for lunch at her home in San Cristobal, Venezuela April 5, 2018. Picture taken April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

By Vivian Sequera and Francisco Aguilar

SOCOPO, Venezuela (Reuters) – It is mid-morning on a weekday yet all that can be heard in the once-bustling corridors of the Orlando Garcia state primary school is the swish of palm trees outside in the wind.

The white, tin-roof building in the town of Socopo once held nearly 400 children, yet closed two months ago in a protest by teachers and parents at low salaries and lack of school lunches.

Nearly 3 million children are missing some or all classes in Venezuela, according to a study by universities, in a depressing knock-on from a deepening economic crisis that could cause long-lasting damage to the South American country.

Venezuela has about 8 million school children in total, and free education was a cornerstone of ex-President Hugo Chavez’s 1999-2013 socialist rule of the OPEC nation.

Now, along with hospitals and other flagship welfare projects, the education sector is in crisis, heaping pain on Venezuelans and eroding Chavez’s legacy as his successor Nicolas Maduro seeks re-election in a May 20 presidential vote.

In Socopo, in the agricultural savannah state of Barinas that was once home to Chavez, half of the 20 public schools, including Orlando Garcia, closed completely in February, mid-term.

They have since reopened, but, along with the rest of Barinas’ approximately 1,600 public schools, they are operating just three days a week.

Venezuela’s economic implosion has led to millions suffering food shortages, unable to buy basic goods. Prices double every two or three months and the currency is worth less every day.

Education experts fear a stunted generation.

“Hungry people aren’t able to teach or learn,” said Victor Venegas, president of the Barinas chapter of the national Federation of Education Workers.

“We’re going to end up with a nation of illiterates.”

A major bonus for school children was once free food but state food programs are now intermittent, and when lunches do come, they are often small and missing protein.

The problems are felt across the country, with children often falling unwell or dizzy due to poor nutrition.

“We were singing the national anthem and I felt nauseous. I’d only eaten an arepa (a local cornbread) that day, and I fainted,” recounted Juliani Caceres, an 11-year-old student in Tachira state on the border with Colombia.

“BACK TO THE 19TH CENTURY”

While critics lambast him for incompetence and corruption, Maduro blames Venezuela’s crisis on Washington and the opposition, accusing them of waging an “economic war.”

Officials constantly downplay the social problems.

“There may be weaknesses in the food program in some municipalities, but we are always attentive and looking to improve the situation,” Education Minister Elias Jaua said in an interview in Barinas.

The government insists education remains a priority and says that 75 percent of the national budget goes to the social sector.

“Amid the economic war, the fall of oil prices, international harassment and financial persecution, not a single school has closed,” Maduro said at a Caracas rally last month, referring to U.S. sanctions against Venezuela.

His Barinas governor, Argenis Chavez, however, acknowledged the closures in Socopo, blaming them on the opposition as part of a plan to sabotage the upcoming election.

Despite Venezuela’s plethora of problems and Maduro’s personal unpopularity, he is widely expected to win re-election, given that the opposition’s most popular leaders are banned from standing and the main anti-Maduro coalition is boycotting the vote on grounds it is rigged in advance.

One opposition leader, former state governor Henri Falcon, has broken with the boycott and is hoping Venezuelans’ fury at their economic woes will translate into votes for him.

According to the opposition, prices rose more than 8,000 percent in the 12 months to March.

Teachers in the public sector earn around four times the minimum wage of just over a dollar a month at the black market exchange rate. That is nowhere near what Venezuelans need to feed themselves and their families.

“With my last paycheck, I was able to buy a kilo of meat and a kilo of sugar,” said Roxi Gallardo, a 35-year-old teacher in the Andean city of San Cristobal who, like so many others, is looking to leave Venezuela.

In addition to food shortages, school communities are suffering from a collapse in transport systems and inability to pay bus fares, plus frequent water and power-cuts.

“We’re heading back to the 19th century,” said Luis Bravo, an education researcher at Caracas’ Central University.

Doctor Marianella Herrera, at the same university, said the combination of inadequate nutrition and patchy education would cost Venezuela dearly in the future, depriving it of skilled workers.

“The longer this goes on without reversing the situation, the tougher it will be,” she said.

Eudys Olivier, a 39-year-old homemaker in a poor area of San Felix in southern Bolivar state, and her two children, live off her husband’s bakery wage of just under $5 per month.

“If there isn’t enough food, I prefer to leave the children at home,” she said. “I want them to go to school every day because it’s their future. But I can’t send them hungry.”

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Francisco Aguilar, Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Bolívar and Anggy Polanco in Tachira; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

Sixty eight killed in Venezuelan police station riot and fire

Relatives of inmates at the General Command of the Carabobo Police react as they wait outside the prison in Valencia, Venezuela March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Tibisay Romero

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Rioting and a fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station in the central city of Valencia killed 68 people on Wednesday, according to the government and witnesses.

Families hoping for news outside the police station were dispersed with tear gas and authorities did not give information until late into the evening.

Relatives of inmates at the General Command of the Carabobo Police wait outside the prison in Valencia, Venezuela March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia

Relatives of inmates at the General Command of the Carabobo Police wait outside the prison in Valencia, Venezuela March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“The State Prosecutor’s Office guarantees to deepen investigations to immediately clarify what happened in these painful events that have left dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning,” said Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab on Twitter.

Venezuelan prisons are notoriously overcrowded and filled with weapons and drugs. Riots leaving dozens dead are not uncommon.

State official Jesus Santander said the state of Carabobo was in mourning after the incident in the city of Valencia.

“Forensic doctors are determining the number of fatalities,” Santander said. A policeman was shot in the leg and was in a stable condition and firefighters had extinguished the flames, he said.

Many Venezuelan prisons are lawless and have been for decades. Prisoners often openly wield machine guns and grenades, use drugs and leave guards powerless.

“There are people who are inside those dungeons (…) and the authorities do not know they exist because they do not dare to enter,” said Humberto Prado, a local prisons rights activist.

(Aditional reporting by Vivian SequeraWriting by Girish Gupta and Vivian Sequera; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

For poor Venezuelans, a box of food may sway vote for Maduro

Osiris (L), daughter of Viviana Colmenares (C), feeds her sister Ornella in a community diner at the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 22, 2018. Picture taken February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Andreina Aponte and Ana Isabel Martinez

CARACAS (Reuters) – A bag of rice on a hungry family’s kitchen table could be the key to Nicolas Maduro retaining the support of poor Venezuelans in May’s presidential election.

For millions of Venezuelans suffering an unprecedented economic crisis, a monthly handout of a box of heavily-subsidized basic food supplies by Maduro’s unpopular government has offered a tenuous lifeline in their once-prosperous OPEC nation.

The 55-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez introduced the so-called CLAP boxes in 2016 in a signature policy of his rule, continuing the socialist government’s strategy of seeking public support with cash bonuses and other giveaways.

Now, running for re-election on May 20, Maduro says the CLAPs are his “most powerful weapon” to combat an “economic war” being waged by Washington, which brands him a “dictator” and has imposed sanctions.

Mariana, a single mother who lives in the poor hillside neighborhood of Petare in the capital Caracas, says the handouts will decide her vote.

“I and other women I know are going to vote for Maduro because he’s promising to keep giving CLAPs, which at least help fix some problems,” said the 30-year-old cook, who asked not to give her surname for fear of losing the benefit.

“When you earn minimum wage, which doesn’t cover exorbitant prices, the box helps.”

Maduro’s rule since 2013 has coincided with a deep recession caused by a plunge in global oil prices and failed state-led economic policies.

Yet the worse the economy gets, the more dependent some poor Venezuelans become on the state.

Life in the South American country’s poor ‘barrios’ revolves around the CLAP boxes. According to the government, six million families receive the benefit, from a population of around 30 million people.

Venezuelans, many of whom are undernourished, anxiously wait for their monthly delivery, and a thriving black market has sprung up to sell CLAP products.

The government sources almost all the CLAP goods from abroad, especially from Mexico, since Venezuela’s food production has shriveled and currency controls restrict private imports.

Critics, including Maduro’s main challenger for the May 20 vote, Henri Falcon, say the CLAPs are a cynical form of political patronage and are rife with corruption.

Erratic supply and control of distribution by government-affiliated groups have sown resentment among others.

“I can’t count on it. Sometimes it comes, sometimes not,” said Viviana Colmenares, 24, an unemployed mother of six struggling to get by in Petare.

The contents of a CLAP box, a Venezuelan government handout of basic food supplies, is pictured at Viviana Colmenares' house in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 23, 2018. Picture taken February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The contents of a CLAP box, a Venezuelan government handout of basic food supplies, is pictured at Viviana Colmenares’ house in the slum of Petare in Caracas, Venezuela February 23, 2018. Picture taken February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“INSTRUMENT OF THE REVOLUTION”

Stamped with the faces of Maduro and Chavez, the CLAP boxes usually contain rice, pasta, grains, cooking oil, powdered milk, canned tuna and other basic goods. Recipients pay 25,000 bolivars per box, or about $0.12 at the black market rate.

That is a godsend in a country where the minimum monthly wage is less than $2 at that rate – and would be swallowed up by two boxes of eggs or a small tin of powdered milk.

Inflation, at more than 4,000 percent annually according to opposition data, is pulverizing household income.

The administration of the CLAP – the Local Supply and Production Committees – does not hide its political motivation.

“The CLAPs are here to stay. They are an instrument of the revolution,” said Freddy Bernal, CLAP chief administrator.

“It has helped us stop a social explosion and enabled us to win elections and to keep winning them,” he told Reuters, referring to government victories in 2017 local polls.

Sometimes, though, the tactic backfires, as it did when promised free pork failed to arrive over Christmas, prompting street protests.

Maduro’s inability to halt rising hunger has jarred with the experience of many under Chavez, who won the presidency in 1998 and improved Venezuela’s social indicators with oil-fueled welfare policies.

Even though Maduro’s approval rating is only around 26 percent, according to one recent poll, his re-election looks likely as Venezuela’s opposition coalition is boycotting the vote on accusations it is rigged.

His most popular rivals are banned from standing and the election board favors the government.

Former state governor Falcon has broken with the coalition to stand. One survey by pollster Datanalisis in February showed that in a two-way race, he would defeat Maduro by 45.8 percent to 32.2 percent of likely voters.

Falcon’s critics counter that those numbers mean nothing in the face of electoral irregularities that could arbitrarily tip the balance in favor of Maduro.

Several other minor figures have registered for the single-round election, but have little chance of making an impact.

‘CAN’T DEPEND ON THE BOX’

Juan Luis Hernandez, a food specialist at the Central University of Venezuela, estimates the country generates just 44 percent of the basic food supplies it produced in 2008.

Meanwhile, food imports fell 67 percent between the start of 2016 and the end of 2017 as the crisis bit, he said.

Almost two-thirds of Venezuelans surveyed in a university study published in February said they had lost on average 11 kilograms (24 lbs) in body weight last year. Eighty-seven percent were assessed to live in poverty.

The same study found that seven out of 10 Venezuelans had received CLAPs.

“They (the government) don’t care about the food issue, just about getting people something to eat while they get through the elections,” said Susana Raffalli, a consultant with charity Caritas.

Some Venezuelans fear they would be found out should they vote against Maduro and be punished by no longer receiving food bags.

Already handouts are far from guaranteed.

A dozen recipients told Reuters that often they arrived half-full and would only come every few months. Outside of the capital Caracas, delivery was even more sporadic.

“I can’t depend on the box, otherwise I would die from hunger,” said Yuni Perez, a 48-year-old rubbish collector and mother of three.

Perez, who lives in a ramshackle house made from breeze blocks and corrugated steel at the top of Petare, said a CLAP box provided her family with food for a week. Often they would receive one every two months.

When her family is short of food, she hunts for leftovers dumped on the side of Petare’s winding streets. She said she had found several newborn babies discarded in the gutter, which she attributed to mothers unable to face providing food for another child.

Another Petare resident, mother-of-three Yaneidy Guzman said she dropped from 68kg to 48kg last year, despite receiving the CLAP.

“At least for 10 days you don’t have to think about finding food,” the 32-year-old said of the handouts, her cheekbones protruding from her face.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera, Deisy Buitrago in Caracas; Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)