No Food for You… If You Don’t Vote for Us

In a country where 60% of the population lives in extreme poverty, the clearest sign of Nicolás Maduro’s terrible job as president might be his most powerful electoral weapon. When you need votes, threatening to starve people to death works like a charm.

Photo: Gabriel Méndez

“They tell me, ‘Mommy, please, I’m hungry, I want to eat.’ I voted swearing at the government.”

Those are the words of July Castellano, a 40-year-old mother of five who unwillingly voted in last year’s regional elections, fearing the government-subsidized food her family needs to eat once a day would be taken away if she abstained. Hers is one of the many stories Ryan Dube, Kejal Vyas and good old Anatoly Kumarnaev tell in their most recent piece for the Wall Street Journal.

The government buys votes by taking advantage of a famished country, and the magnitude of this sick bargain is horrifying. With only some 15% of the population living above poverty line, and over 60% in extreme poverty, the food subsidies, which more than 12 million Venezuelans benefit from, are a key factor to consider before even thinking about voting against Nicolás Maduro.

Hunger is Maduro’s last (and arguably most powerful) weapon to “win” an election with a 13,000% yearly inflation, and a near 20% GDP drop.

“Food is an enormously powerful weapon in a country where babies die of malnutrition, store shelves are often bare and three-quarters of the population has lost an average of 19 pounds. The grants to millions of poverty-stricken voters might very well ensure his leftist movement runs this country for many years to come.”

It’s not like Maduro needs more votes than any other candidate — Tibisay will have no problem changing numbers — yet this is a reality that we must fully and openly acknowledge to understand how, contrary to common sense, chavismo can still get a couple million votes, with almost 80% of the country against it.

People hate Maduro, but many will support him for fear, or hopelessness. Many advocates of next May’s elections don’t seem to consider that.

The power of Mr. Maduro’s electoral machine has discouraged opposition supporters such as Larry Segovia, 36, who lives in Santa Lucía. Worn out from juggling his crumbling accounting business, Mr. Segovia said he’s now thinking of backing the government as he watches his pro-Socialist neighbors get food and other perks.

“If you can’t beat them you might as well join them, just to be able to take advantage of something,” he said from his cramped office. “How are you going to fight against that elephant?”

Just thinking about millions of people voting for their executioner, in exchange for the little crumbs a bankrupted government can still afford makes me sick to my stomach, but mine is a stomach I still can afford to fill with food by myself.

Thus, the government has made sure that people understand it will all be taken away if they fail to support the Revolution.

“The so-called Fatherland Card, using technology from Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp., allows the government to keep track of who has voted. That allows officials to put pressure on food recipients if they are reluctant to cast a ballot, according to election experts, government critics and ruling party activists.

By law, the vote is supposed to be secret. But at voting centers in the capital, Caracas, and the westernmost state of Zulia during the December municipal elections, it was easy to see how the ruling party worked the levers of government to ensure that likely supporters made it to the polls. In a giant red tent, Socialist activists scanned voters’ Fatherland Cards. Using a computerized database, they could determine who hadn’t voted and what benefits those people receive. Government supporters called “patrollers” were then dispatched on motorbikes to the homes of food recipients to remind them of the benefits and convince them to turn out, according to a local ruling-party official.

If that isn’t enough, there is also the practice of “assisted voting” in some polling places, according to several people who monitor voting stations. They say ruling-party supporters sometimes physically help voters cast ballots.”

The prohibition of these red tents was one of the guarantees demanded by MUD parties in the infamous Santo Domingo talks earlier this year, a subject ignored in the final document signed by Henri Falcón three weeks ago.

With a government willing to starve its country and an opposition presenting little to no alternative, an electoral resolution to the Venezuelan crisis seems deader than ever, no matter what Henri Falcón and his advisers say.