When his fellow masked protesters said they needed volunteers for a dangerous task last spring, 21-year-old Manuel Melo didn’t hesitate to raise his hand, agreeing to confront a Venezuelan National Guard water cannon barreling down on the retreating march.
Government forces didn’t hesitate either, turning the hose on him with such force that it “lifted me up in the air and then I fell,” causing such severe injuries that doctors had to remove his bleeding kidney and gallbladder. The protest movement collapsed a few months later, and the government of President Nicolás Maduro quickly moved to install an assembly to rewrite the constitution.
Now, as the country prepares to elect governors for all 23 states on Sunday, Melo feels that sacrifices like his were ignored by politicians with selfish goals. He looks the other way when trucks pass blaring campaign music supporting opposition candidates.
“They’re just playing the government’s game,” he said. “But this isn’t a game.”
While Maduro remains unpopular, with approval ratings hovering just over 20 percent, apathy and disappointment within the opposition’s base could play to his advantage. Some doubt that winning the governorships will result in real change, especially at the national level. Instead, they expect the government and its compliant supreme court to act as it did when the opposition won overwhelmingly in 2015 parliamentary elections. The courts overturned nearly all substantive legislation passed by the new legislature.
Government opponents also mistrust the country’s electoral authority and say there’s no guarantee of a clean vote. After a controversial election in July to install a pro-government Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, the tech company responsible for the country’s voting machines, Smartmatic, said the vote count had been manipulated by at least one million.
That has left opposition candidates battling to shore up interest and enthusiasm among skeptical supporters.
At a final campaign event Wednesday, opposition candidate Juan Manuel Olivares smiled and waved atop a produce truck for hours as part of a campaign caravan in the coastal state of Vargas. Stacks of speakers blared music, trucks were packed full of dancing and screaming supporters, and onlookers came out to cheer him on.
“Victory on Sunday will be in your hands,” he said. “This Sunday, nobody can stay at home without voting.”
Opposition leaders have insisted they have no choice but to participate in the elections or the socialists could win all 23 states. If there’s a voter turnout of over 65 percent, they believe they could win at least 18 of those races.
Popular memes passed around in anti-government WhatsApp chat groups include a photo of a socialist party candidate with the caption, “Don’t worry, no need to vote, get used to me as governor.”
The government would likely benefit in multiple ways if opposition voters stay home. For one, leaders could shoot down the mounting belief both internally and internationally that the government has turned authoritarian by pointing to the elections. Victories in a significant number of states would allow officials to assert that the government retains popular support despite the deep economic crisis.
With that idea in mind, some who actively participated in this year’s protests have come out in support of participating in the elections.
“The protests went cold even though people wanted to keep going,” said Jesus Jimenez, 24, who was left with a fractured ankle from the impact of a tear gas canister during a protest. “But these elections are important and worth it.”
Organizations like the Venezuelan bishops’ conference and the Venezuelan Medical Foundation have called on Venezuelans to participate. Even a group of 18 political prisoners penned a letter urging people to go to the polls.
But the hurdles for the opposition go beyond coaxing its supporters to the polls. They must also explain how to vote.
In a last minute decision, the supreme court ruled that all opposition parties that participated in primary elections must be placed on the ballot, instead of just the winner. That means that voters will face a checkerboard of options.
The opposition also accuses the government of ramping up intimidation tactics ahead of the vote. Venezuela’s secret police arrested Olivares’ brother in late September for alleged car theft, although Olivares insists politics played a role.
Should Venezuelans decide to vote, they’ll be hoping for solutions to the ongoing economic issues that plague everyday life. Food and medicine shortages continue, a cash shortage has emerged in recent months, and hourlong lines now form for public buses because so many have broken down and owners can’t find repair parts.
In Melo’s home, the refrigerator only has a few plantains. After losing his kidney and gallbladder, doctors ordered him to cut back on protein. But it doesn’t matter because proteins like meat now cost too much for his family to buy.
“Here people just make money to eat, and that’s it,” he said.
That’s why he says he attended the protests earlier this year. And while he remains put off by the idea of the election, he says people might as well vote Sunday to prevent a government sweep.
“But when they start removing those governors, like we know they will, it’s back to the street, and we have to take Caracas,” he said.
Follow Cody Weddle on Twitter: @coweddle