At 54, H. is already a grandmother. She’s a cheerful secretary, working for the same enterprise since she was 23. She lives on Avenida Fuerzas Armadas, in downtown Caracas, with her husband, her father and her youngest daughter who is a college student. Although we may classify them as a working class family, H. never was a Chavez supporter, even when her husband and siblings were still hopeful about the Bolivarian revolution. That’s why she signed the petition to recall a referendum for President Hugo Chavez back in 2004.
Like so many others, H. wasn’t afraid of putting her name on that petition. This is a democracy (or so we thought back then) and that was a constitutional right. H. works in the private sector, in a place where the open majority opposed the government, went to demonstrations and, of course, signed the petition without a second thought. Signing to endorse what you believe in seemed a normal thing to do.
No one could really picture the Lista Tascón before it happened. Soon enough, the media began denouncing dismissals and other kind of discrimination to those who signed. H. wasn’t worried: she didn’t work for the government. But in November, 2005 her family was evicted from the apartment where they had lived for years.
The old building wasn’t meant to be sold: one landlord rents all apartments at low, state controlled price. Many owners of the kind try to change their building’s regulations in order to sell or to skirt rent-controls, but it’s not usually allowed. In that case, most of them just sell the building to get rid of the problem. That’s what H.’s landlord did: he sold the building to a new landlord who had the money and the staff of lawyers required to kick out the tenants. H.’s family was the first one evicted.
It isn’t certain that they were evicted because H. signed in favor referendum, but she still has her suspicions. Their chavista neighbors helped them to keep their belongings while they didn’t have a place to live. The landlord’s plan was to empty out the building, but soon they heard an invasion threat from a group of squatters and no more families were evicted. Negotiations soon began; H.’s family wanted the chance to buy the apartment where they’d lived for years. A month later they were back at home, but serious damage had been done to the place. The next year was spent in bureaucratic requirements to ask for a credit through the Ley de Política Habitacional – the housing policy law meant to provide affordable mortgage credit to people like H.
H.’s family and neighbors put a lot of pressure: she should withdraw her signature if she wanted to get an approval. Finally, she gave in. She felt so humiliated, but she wrote a letter directed to CNE with a short explanation of how she was wrong when she signed. She got a copy with a CNE stamp on it, to prove that this requirement was also fulfilled. But at the bank no one asked for that paper and she got her loan.
I always think of H. when I think of the looming need to gather 20% of the electoral roll’s signatures to move forward with a recall this year. For a long time, I thought they ruled out the recall as a viable strategy for getting rid of Maduro. Too many bad memories and too much fear should make it very difficult to gather almost 4 million signatures. But the 2,5 million gathered when we only needed 197 thousand for the first step, has quieted my fears.
Maybe you think H. wouldn´t sign this time. But let me tell you that she already has. She signed, her father and her daughter also signed.
Are they nuts, don’t they remember? Of course they do. That’s why her older sons didn’t sign, and won’t: one is a public employee, the other one just received a Mision Vivienda apartment and they won’t risk that. But they will vote, when a referendum is called. As rational a decision-making process as a rational choice junky could dream of.
Things have become so difficult for Venezuelans that fear won’t be enough to stop people from doing whatever they can to make things different. Let’s hope that signatures and votes are respected, and a peaceful political change is made possible.