Venezuela's Maduro aims to turn empty stomachs into full ballot boxes

A pedestrian walks past a solid storefront security gate spray painted with a message that reads in Spanish: "There is no peace when there is hunger!"  in a file photo in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 26, 2017.
A pedestrian walks past a solid storefront security gate spray painted with a message that reads in Spanish: "There is no peace when there is hunger!" in a file photo in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 26, 2017. AP

Lamski and Tatsienlu Perez, 52-year-old twins, measure the price of their opposition to the Venezuelan government in their gaunt faces and baggy clothes.

The women, who were once paramedics, say they’ve lost 77 pounds each since 2015, as their salaries have dwindled under hyperinflation and, they claim, they’ve been denied access to subsidized food programs because of their rabid anti-government positions.

On Sunday, as President Nicolás Maduro seeks a new six-year term, the defiant sisters say they are going to boycott what they call “fraudulent” elections in protest.

“When I take off my shirt I can see my ribs and bones, and it makes me want to cry. I can see my liver and pancreas,” Lamski Perez said. “We’re not interested in elections. …What we need is food. We’re malnourished and need help.”

Since taking office in 2013, Maduro has overseen one of the most spectacular economic collapses in history. Venezuela, once among the hemisphere’s richest countries and boasting the world’s largest crude reserves, has turned into the regional basket case.

The country is trapped in a deep recession and inflation is expected to blow past the International Monetary Fund's prediction of 13,000 percent this year. Minimum wage won’t buy a bag of beans, food shortages are rampant, and more than a million people have fled the country in the last two years trying to escape hunger.

Perversely, the administration’s mismanagement has left the nation of 32 million more reliant on it than ever.

In 2016, the government began handing out bags of subsidized food, known by their acronym, CLAP, to fight off what it calls an “economic war” waged by Washington and other enemies. By some accounts, 70 percent of the population now rely on CLAP food to supplement their diets.

And during this election cycle, critics say the aid has become weaponized as part of a sophisticated and cynical get-out-the-vote machine.

At the heart of the government’s subsidy program is the “Carnet de la Patria,” or “Fatherland Card” — an electronic identification card — that Venezuelans often need to show in order receive their CLAP food, subsidized medicine and government cash bonuses.

On Election Day, millions of people will be encouraged to register those cards at booths run by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela that will be set up next to polling stations. There, organizers will scan the card and be able to see, in real time, who has voted — and roust those who haven’t.

The government says the Fatherland Cards are simply a high-tech way to make sure government subsidies are going to the neediest. And the system is completely voluntary.

But in a country where a majority rely on subsidies to stay alive, the system has become a powerful and pernicious electoral tool, said Luis Lander, the director of the Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, an election watchdog group.

“This is clearly being used to threaten voters,” he said, explaining that people fear that if they don’t vote, they might lose their government-subsidized food. The government insists the aid comes with no political obligations, but Lander said people are wary.

Venezuela uses electronic voting machines — and the Fatherland Cards are scanned electronically. And while there’s no evidence the systems are linked, the set-up seems designed to fuels doubts, Lander said.

“I would venture to say that there’s no possibility that the system violates voting secrecy,” he said. “But people aren’t convinced of that. … People fear that, due to the Fatherland Cards, their vote isn’t secret.”

One man in Maracaibo who works for a government-run oil company said he was issued his Fatherland Card at work. On Election Day, Daniel, who didn't want to give his last name for fear of losing his job, will have to register his card at the ruling-party booth called the “Punto Rojo,” or “Red Spot.” While the registration is not explicitly mandatory, he fears that skipping the step might put his job at risk.

During a recent vote, Daniel said party organizers noticed he hadn’t scanned his card and went to fetch him from his house.

But he says he fooled the system.

“I let the time expire on the [electronic] voting machine and it voided my ballot,” he said. “But still, in every election, including that one, I’ve had to go to the [ruling party’s] Red Spot, register, and tell them that I had voted.”

But many people aren’t as brave or savvy as Daniel.

Michael Penfold, a political science professor in Caracas and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., has been studying the electoral impact of the Fatherland Card.

By comparing turnout in 2015 (before the cards went into effect) and more recent elections, Penfold estimates the system might have boosted turnout by 10 to 15 percent — much of it in favor of the administration. Not only does it encourage government supporters to go to the polls, he says, but it intimidates opposition voters by making them worry about biting the hand that literally feeds them.

The government is actively promoting the idea that “big brother is watching,” Penfold said. “It’s a very powerful tool, and one that could seriously deteriorate the voting process in Venezuela.”

Vote buying is as old as elections themselves. But “this newly minted form of clientelism is arguably the most developed and most authoritarian in Latin America, and it poses a colossal threat to the return of democracy in Venezuela,” Penfold wrote in a recent report.

Maduro has said more than 16 million people now have Fatherland Cards. And the government encourages its adoption by handing out “bonuses” provided only to card holders.

On Mother’s Day, for example, Maduro told a crowd that all the mothers holding the Fatherland Card had received a 1.5 million bolivar “bonus” — about $2 dollars at the black market exchange rate — automatically loaded onto their cards.

“This is giving and giving,” Maduro told a crowd on the island of Margarita. “The Fatherland protects you and supports you. You repay love with love. Vote freely for whomever your conscience dictates, but vote.”

He also promised the audience a "prize" — perhaps additional credits — on their Fatherland Cards, if they went to the polls.

Maduro’s nearest rival, Henri Falcón, the former governor of Lara State, has called the tactic tantamount to fraud that would be “unthinkable in any country.”

“The government’s candidate [Maduro], in his speeches on national television, is telling the people that he’s willing to buy their vote,” he wrote on Twitter.

He also called on the National Electoral Body to prohibit the “Red Spots” — where the Fatherland Cards are scanned — and to force the administration to “quit harassing the voters to find out who they voted for.”

His allegations are unlikely to have an impact on the electoral body, since it is run by administration loyalists.

Maduro needs a strong turnout to convince the international community that Sunday’s elections are legitimate. The United States, the European Union and others have said they won’t recognize the results, with Maduro barring opposition parties and jailing opponents ahead of the race.

And even though Falcón is waving the opposition banner, many opposition voters distrust him and remember him as a one-time government supporter. In their telling, Falcón is only in the race to provide a veneer of legitimacy to an illegitimate election.

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But many beneficiaries of the government’s aid don’t see the problem with it.

Jennifer Lizarazo, 37, lives in a working-class neighborhood of Caracas and is a lifelong supporter of Maduro, and his late predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

While she plans to vote for Maduro's reelection Sunday, she says she’s not being bribed to do it with the handouts. Lizarazo says she has friends who don’t vote for the government and still receive food aid through the CLAP.

“All of this [aid] has helped me a lot, but it’s not the solution,” she said. “The solution would be that there was food at the supermarket.”

Tatsienlu Perez, one of the twins who has shed weight, however, believes aid is being used as a political cudgel.

She says she doesn’t receive a monthly “food bonus” that’s supposed to be included in her salary. And she says the CLAP food also isn’t available in her community. Even if it was, she wouldn’t have access, because she’s never applied for a Fatherland Card.

The twins are paying the price for going without the card. They've taken down all their mirrors because they can’t bear to look at their own emaciated frames.

“You’re not going to believe me, but sometimes our meal is one egg that we share,” she said. “I bet Maduro eats an entire carton of eggs.”

Her sister says the government should care less about clinging to power and more about feeding everyone, regardless of their political stripes.

“With everything that’s going on, they want us to get a Fatherland Card and celebrate this government, they want us to applaud this tyranny and dictatorship,” she said. “And maybe I’ll be thrown in jail for saying this, but who cares? Maybe in jail they’ll give me a plantain.”

Gustavo Ocando Alex contributed to this report from Maracaibo.