A Venezuela where Dictatorship Feels Far Away

Last Sunday, a fair-haired woman in her forties closed her eyes, smiled, and exhaled a sigh of deep satisfaction. Not aware that anyone was watching her, she looked up into the sky and said to herself out loud “…Por la patria!” as she deposited her ballot in a box, beaming with sweet, hopeful delight.

As I made my way back to the subway after spending some hours at the makeshift center the government had set up for the National Constituent Assembly election in El Poliedro, a former concert hall on the outskirts of Caracas, I closed my eyes and exhaled in despair with my own realization: These Venezuelans don’t live in dictatorship.

Ever since Tibisay announced that 7 districts of Caracas, around 800 thousand voters, would be bunched together into one massive polling station in El Poliedro, in a last-minute move that further cemented the haphazard nature of this strange election, I’d wanted to see for myself how this was going to work. I also wanted to see State oppression in the flesh — public employees being mercilessly coerced into showing up.

The hour-long metro ride to La Rinconada station was mostly silent. It was also free of charge. That El Metro was even open at all on a day when MUD announced a demonstration was in and of itself, remarkable. Because La Riconada is the last stop for that line, it was safe to assume that most passengers on the train with me were riding to vote. Already, it struck me as eerie that I was not surrounded by militant party organizers dressed in red shirts, or that no last-minute campaigning was being done. As I emerged from La Riconada station on the crowded escalator, the only signs that an election was happening at all were two small posters taped to the side of the wall promoting candidates.

The scene in front of El Poliedro, a colossal domed structure reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot center sphere, was jovial and chaotic. People were milling about in disarray, trying to figure out how and where exactly to form a queue. Reggaeton blared from a pair of speakers set up next to an Arepera Socialista food truck, and different sized tents dotted the semi-crowded landscape, offering shade to the requisite stray dogs.  As I searched for clues on where I should go, a frail old man handed me a government newspaper filled with propaganda, complete with Diosdado’s latest Mazazos on the back. I was almost thankful as it would make for interesting reading material while I waited, but, more importantly, I could bury my nose in it when the VTV camera crew came around to ask me why I was there. Turns out I never had to resort to my prop, I only saw one cameraman the whole time I was there.

I finally spotted a man holding a handwritten sign that said Chacao, the district where I would normally vote, standing on a patch of grass. I made my way to the improvised line that began to form in front of him, careful not to draw too much attention to myself, and trying to run through what I would say if the man asked me to sign a check-in form. No such luck. Everyone was either minding their own business, or too busy trying to figure out next steps to engage in usual cola chit chat. That’s when I began to let down my guard.

After half an hour of waiting under the sun, the Chacao line that went nowhere grew to around 30 people. Absent was the usual chatter about who the favorite candidate was or who to vote for, or the swarm of hopefuls vying for my attention. That’s when an enthusiastic woman with Constituyente gear finally approached us handing out chuletas, pamphlets explaining how to vote. She made sure to answer any questions I might have had and warmly thanked me for my vote. She was the only candidate I would see that day working the lines. This was not a competition over votes, I soon came to understand. It was an act of solidarity.

Katy grew restless when she noticed things weren’t moving along, so she took it upon herself to hustle and get us inside already. The gated entrance to El Poliedro was flanked by dozens of National Policemen with riot shields, looking intimidating in their somber new uniforms and red berets. As I stood in line, I could see Katy in the distance negotiating our entrance with one of the officers. Every now and then random people would come up to us and ask where the lines for Sucre or Libertador where. Is there a special line for senior citizens? Are we all going inside as a group? Nobody knew, it was mostly shrugs and confusion. It was all very Venezuelan.

Eventually, thanks to Katy’s stubborn appeals, our Chacao line was led past the guarded gates and into the empty parking lot. We were told to line up, single file, in the massive expanse of asphalt, for reasons none of us would really ever understand. A guard escorted our line past hooded Military Intelligence agents shooting the shit, and a couple of air conditioned buses, as we made our way to the front of the building in formation; a pointless exercise, we would come to see, since chaos and confusion once again set in.

I was left to my own devices to figure out which of the dozen single-file lines leading to the voting center entrance I was supposed to join. Some thought we were lining up according to cédula number, others thought we should be organized by municipality. None of it would matter anyway once we got inside. The only semblance of instructions came by way of a rotund military officer who bellowed confusing information on a sound system, he looked tiny perched on the impressive balcony above us. “Those who vote in Municipio Miranda [there is no such thing] stay downstairs, those who vote in Libertador come up here!”  “Please open the gate and let in personnel!” He called out to no one in particular.

“Now is when the real revolución will come!” I heard someone say. I scanned the patient crowd of around a thousand people for looks that betrayed their unwillingness to be there, I listened for anyone griping under their breath about having been forced to show up. “I really hope the opposition can see once and for all that we are democratic, and learn by example,” the woman in front of me said longingly. “I really hope we reach 10 million votes,” answered the man behind me. “It’s looking like we will.”  It was close to noon.

As we inched our way closer to the voter ID station where CNE personnel would check your name against a database, the orderly lines became a huddle of shoves and shouting. A National Guardsman signaled to me that I should walk right past the men behind laptops, so I did. I was never checked against any voter roll.

Once inside the dome, a welcome respite from the noisy crowd, the atmosphere was laid back. People wandered amiably about the maze that had been set up with cubicle partitions as if touring a trade show or convention, looking for the booth that would stand in for their polling station. I walked past a camera crew in the middle of an interview, which drew a small crowd in an otherwise ample hallway. “It is someone important?” I asked no one in particular. “We are ALL important,” said a man cheerfully. I asked a woman in a militia uniform where my voting center was. “It doesn’t matter, just vote anywhere, these are all contingency stations.”

There was no queue before the voting machine I picked at random. Only a woman standing behind the cardboard screen, looking confused. “Chica can you please help me? I don’t understand what to do.” The miembro de mesa helpfully guided her on what buttons to press. When my turn came up, I handed her my cédula, scanned my fingerprint and concentrated on following the 8 steps I’d memorized for how to vote null. I was relieved when the machine spat out a printed ballot with the words NULO prominently displayed.

I am registered to vote at U.E. San Juan de Dios Guanche, but the screen said I voted at U.E. Santiago de León de Caracas. Splitting hairs, I guess.

Instead of the usual voter notebook with my printed name and cédula, a second miembro de mesa scribbled my misspelled name onto crumpled sheet of paper and asked me to sign next to it. There was no ink to dip my pinky into.

I could’ve very easily sauntered to another booth and voted again, but I decided against it. It felt exploitative. I felt dirty sabotaging a process that, however fraudulent and evil in its intent, people had genuinely pinned their hopes and aspirations on. I was sad when I left. Sad for the people who were being used and deceived by a government that championed them. Sadder still in knowing that what they saw as an empowering exercise of their civic duty would do little change their lives, to bring food to their tables or medicines to their sick children.

Back in Eastern Caracas, another group of Venezuelans were also busy trying to take back their hopes for a better future. My welcome back to Chacao metro station came in the form of a tear gas attack, as a throng of people desperately leaped over the turnstiles, gagging and choking and running over each other as they fled from the repression above. It’s back to dictatorship, I thought.

The real Chacao, you immediately realize, its like the upside-down version of the happy, Poliedro-based Chacao only government activists are invited to.

I went to the Poliedro thinking I’d see a gaggle of coerced slaves being frog-marched into an election each of them secretly loathed as much as I do. But that’s not what I saw. Baffling though it is to us, there are still millions of chavistas who are genuinely, intimately excited to vote in support of the Constituyente, even if most were unsure about what that even meant or who they were electing. The opposition as a whole —and I personally— can’t understand that, and so we tend towards denial. But it’s true.

The 72 hours that followed showed the profound contempt chavismo’s leaders have for their own followers. As colectivo members from the 23 de enero protested the CNE over seats they felt had been stolen in the melée, it was hard not to feel a bit of reliefto know for once they’re experiencing what it means to have zero power as you face down a State that hates you. The brazen lies about turnout, the stolen seats in 23 de enero, the entire cheating at solitaire charade with millions of made-up votes underline once more how monstrous the lie chavistas have sold really is.

But they’ve bought it. Intimately, to the core of their being: they still believe.

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