Weighted Votes: Corruption Within Venezuela’s Upcoming May Elections

By Bethany Erb


On May 20, 2018, Venezuela will conduct its snap presidential election. Originally scheduled for April 22, the National Electoral Council rescheduled the date after the ruling Socialist Party and select opposition parties announced the creation of a new political pact. While an indication of the willingness of current Venezuelan president, Nicolas Maduro, to negotiate (in some fashion) with marginalized opposition parties, the rescheduling does little to shift the accompanying schemes being implemented to ensure the Socialist Party’s dominance of the Venezuelan vote.[1] The most egregious of these voter-bribery schemes guarantees government-supplied household commodities and rations in exchange for a citizen’s pro-Maduro vote. Such tactics are set to tarnish the “democratic” sheen of Venezuela’s approaching election and will likely deflate the appeal of Maduro’s presidential competitors to impoverished Venezuelans. That outcome, Maduro’s party would say, is exactly the point.

Despite Venezuela’s accelerating economic crisis, catalyzed under Hugo Chavez’s rule and perpetuated by Maduro’s socialist policies, the president still publicly projects an air of confidence in his government’s ability to triumph in the coming election. On state-run television, President Maduro repeatedly declared during rally broadcasts: “I’m ready to be the presidential candidate.”[2] Maduro’s conviction seems hubristic, given Venezuela’s current food shortages, skyrocketing hyperinflation, and inadequate healthcare system—all of which are unpopular side effects of the current administration’s policies.[3] Maduro’s optimism seems to stem from his party’s exploitation of Venezuela’s deteriorating resources, as mentioned above—a strategy as smarmy as it is canny.

The Socialist Party’s electoral strategy historically centers around CLAP boxes, monthly handouts of heavily-subsidized basic food supplies, rationed out to Venezuelans using registered ID cards, which also used to cast votes within any election cycle. While the Maduro government has not explicated stated that it will cancel food deliveries for those who vote against the Socialist Party, as the Washington Post remarks, “Given the extreme power imbalance and people’s abject dependence on politicized food deliveries just to survive, it’s easy to see why few would dare to take any chances.”[4]

With Venezuelans growing increasingly dependent on the state for basic commodities and foodstuffs, as the country’s capability to import and manufacture resources deteriorates and inflation levels skyrocket, the CLAP boxes become an even more essential survival tool (despite their ironic origins in a system perpetuating their necessity). The CLAP boxes’ implied qualification, their recipient’s reciprocal vote for Maduro’s government, is reduced to a resented, yet necessary, evil for Venezuelans.[5] For hungry Venezuelans, ignoring the strings attached is not a risk they can easily take.

The upcoming elections are not the first time that Maduro’s authoritarian regime has given its voter-base such a stark ultimatum: vote pro-Maduro, or go to bed hungry. The Socialist Party government has repeatedly used this strategy in the past few years, building resentment amongst Venezuelans, while ensuring victory for its party at the polls. For instance, Katerina Noriega, a street vendor in Santa Rita, told the Wall Street Journal that she voted for Maduro’s party in Venezuela’s municipal elections of December 2017 because “of our difficult situation.”[6] She says she was promised “about a kilogram of rice and beans, or about ten days’ worth of wages” which, to Katerina and many other impoverished Venezuelans, overcame their qualms over voting for such a corrupt government. Despite Noreiga’s frustration with Maduro’s administration, the lack of alternative sources of food made her decision less about ethics and more about survival. Her situation is not atypical; across the country, Venezuelans are being compelled to vote with their stomachs, not their heads.

The decision of Venezuelan’s ruling Socialist Party to bargain for a Venezuelan’s pro-Maduro vote in exchange for a few day’s rations may signal the party’s implicit uncertainty in its ability to persuade Venezuelans on the merits of its policies, not just its compensatory hand-outs. If viewed as an insecure measure to publicly assert Maduro’s shaky authority over the Venezuelan people, the Socialist Party’s continued bargaining could spark a political uprising in favor of marginalized opposition parties represented in the upcoming election. After all, while it is difficult to conceive of Maduro not winning with such a canny strategy, Venezuela’s socio-economic collapse and its brutal effects on frustrated Venezuelans might capsize Maduro’s plan for vote-domination. America’s presidential election of 2016, for instance, speaks to a voter-base’s ability to contradict seemingly self-evident (to some, that is) projections of their behavior at the polls. In each respective case, the results have and will signal far-reaching socio-economic changes within and exterior to each country. With Venezuela’s economy in melt-down mode, its healthcare system in bureaucratic disarray, and hyperinflation continuing to increase, the promise of a full meal may not be enough to persuade Venezuelans to perpetuate their country’s demise.

[1] Miguel Angel Latouche, “Why an Election Won’t Topple Venezuela’s Maduro” The Conversation (April 25, 2018): accessed April 27, 2018, http://theconversation.com/why-an-election-wont-topple-venezuelas-maduro-89332.

[2] Kirk, Semple, “Venezuela Calls for Early Elections, and Maduro Aims to Retain Control” The New York Times (January 23, 2018): accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/23/world/americas/venezuela-election-maduro.html.

[3] John Otis, “‘We Loot or We Die of Hunger:’ Food Shortages Fuel Unrest in Venezuela” The Guardian (January 21, 2018): accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/21/venezuela-looting-violence-food-shortages.

[4] Francisco Toro, “Opinion | Venezuela Has Just Announced an Election – and It’s Terrible News for Democracy” The Washington Post (January 24, 2018): accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2018/01/24/venezuela-has-just-announced-an-election-and-its-terrible-news-for-democracy/?utm_term=.81e5eb0bafc2.

[5] Andreina Aponte, “For Poor Venezuelans, a Box of Food May Sway Vote for Maduro” Reuters (March 12, 2018): accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics-food/for-poor-venezuelans-a-box-of-food-may-sway-vote-for-maduro-idUSKCN1GO173.

[6] Ryan Dube and Anatoly Kurmanaev, “Venezuela’s Maduro, Clinging to Power, Uses Hunger as an Election Weapon” The Wall Street Journal (March 22, 2018): accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/venezuelas-maduro-clinging-to-power-uses-hunger-as-an-electoral-weapon-1521734622.

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