July 19th, 2024

Internet snarl delays vote count in Venezuelan opposition’s primary to choose presidential candidate

By Regina Garcia Cano, The Associated Press on October 22, 2023.

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Ebullient Venezuelans on Sunday chose the candidate they think can end the decade-long, crisis-ridden presidency of Nicolás Maduro, lining up under a scorching sun and torrential rain to cast ballots in a primary election that the opposition independently organized despite government repression.

That was a feat onto itself. But voters had not learned any results hours after polls started closing because of yet another internet-censorship obstacle thrown at the effort that the opposition had planned since late last year and executed without any assistance from Venezuela’s electoral authorities.

“Once we began the process of counting the results, after the closing of the voting centers, we detected that our server that functioned as a transmission channel was blocked, which prevents us from completing this process as scheduled,” said Jesús María Casal, head of the organizing National Primary Commission. He added the commission had already set in motion contingency plans to continue the vote count.

Holding Venezuela’s first presidential primary since 2012 required the deeply fractured opposition to work together. Venezuelans, in turn, showed up at voting centers in and outside of their homeland to make it count, but it could still prove an exercise in futility, if Maduro’s government so wishes.

While the administration agreed in principle to let the opposition choose its candidate for the 2024 presidential election, it also has already barred the primary’s front-runner, María Corina Machado, from running for office. Maduro’s government has in the past bent the law, retaliated against opponents and breached agreements as it sees fit.

Hundreds of people gathered at voting centers in neighborhoods across the capital, Caracas, even before polls were scheduled to open. They later stayed in line despite a rainstorm that left them soaking wet. They carried umbrellas, folding stools and coffee to ease the expected waits, and leaned against buildings or stood under marquees to try to avoid the rain.

“I don’t know about you, but I feel like this is a miracle,” Machado said before voting at a center in a middle-class neighborhood in Caracas. “This is an act of defiance of a system. “¦ We are overcoming all the obstacles.”

People showed up at polling sites despite internal and external logistical problems that caused confusion among voters.

Venezuelans typically vote at public schools. But the independent commission that oversaw the primary opted to use homes, churches, private schools and other facilities as voting stations after the country’s electoral authorities did not respond to requests for help in a timely manner.

A website meant to allow voters to search for their polling site was blocked by internet service providers within Venezuela. Some who managed to circumvent internet censorship with a VPN found their center had been relocated.

“For us, it is a great achievement that people have come out; we will just endure the wait,” voter María Mendez, 68, said, referring to an estimated two-hour delay that she and about 250 people around her encountered. “We have to choose a candidate. We need a lot of changes. We have faced struggles for many years.”

Mendez receives a pension of about $3.70 a month and depends on her adult children living abroad and in Venezuela to afford her medications. She said she planned to vote for Machado because “she is the only one who has not been involved in controversies.”

Machado, a former lawmaker who supports free-market policies, is a longtime critic of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela. She maintained a somewhat low profile for years but dominated the primary campaign by connecting with the same voters she consistently urged to boycott previous elections.

In addition to Machado, nine other candidates remained in the race. The winner is expected to challenge Maduro at the ballot box in the second half of 2024. Maduro is looking to extend his presidency until 2030, which would surpass the time that Hugo Chávez, his mentor, governed.

Caracas resident Stephanie Aguilar, 34, cried while she waited to vote. She described the primary as the only “salvation” for her country, her daughter and son, and the millions of Venezuelans who decided they had to emigrate due to the nation’s economic and political turmoil.

“We want a better country, a free country, for my children … who have grown up in this government,” Aguilar, a housewife, said as she wiped tears from her face. “They ask, ‘Mom, can we go out to eat?’ No, there is no money. “˜Mom, can we do this thing?’ No, there is no money. It is unfortunate that a society grows up under those conditions.”

Maduro’s allies have ridiculed and dismissed the primary all year. Still, both the government and its opponents have used the contest as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from each other as part of a negotiation process meant to end the country’s complex social, economic and political crisis.

Maduro and an opposition faction backed by the U.S. government agreed during the week to work together on basic conditions for the 2024 presidential election. That prompted the government to release six political prisoners and the Biden administration to lift key economic sanctions.

As part of the agreement, Maduro’s administration and the opposition are supposed to “recognize and respect the right of each political actor to select” a presidential candidate freely.

If Machado wins the primary, the focus will shift to Maduro to see if the government reverses its ban on her seeking public office. In June, the government issued an administrative decision prohibiting Machado from running, alleging fraud and tax violations and accusing her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela in the last decade.

The U.S., holding up the threat of renewed sanctions, has given Venezuela until the end of November to establish a process for reinstating all candidates expeditiously.

A U.N.-backed panel investigating human rights abuses in Venezuela said last month that Maduro’s government has intensified efforts to curtail democratic freedoms ahead of the 2024 presidential election. That includes subjecting some politicians, human rights defenders and other opponents to detention, surveillance, threats, defamatory campaigns and arbitrary criminal proceedings.

Organizers of the primary have not given an estimate for the voter participation they expected Sunday. All registered voters in the country can participate, as well as some living abroad.

The primary’s first ballot was cast in Sydney, Australia. Voting centers were scheduled to open in dozens of countries.

“This is unprecedented,” said a smiling María de los Ángeles León, 31, the coordinator of Mexico City’s voting site. “People know that we have no guarantees that the winner of this election will be able to advance to the presidential election, but we keep trying.”

Within Venezuela, government allies also pressured organizers to relocate voting centers.

Opposition mobilizer Fabiola Barrios on Sunday redirected more than four dozen people who showed up at a Caracas private school that was supposed to host a voting center. Organizers attached a sign to the door with the new location, but she also explained to voters the move came after a violent civilian group allied with the government tried to enter the school days earlier during a campaign event.

“They came to attack us. If you have neighbors, family, tell them that they no longer vote here,” Barrios told a woman who walked to the voting center. “They vote over there.”

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Associated Press writer María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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