As Sandra Flores Garzon was walking home one Friday, a young woman was murdered on the pavement in front of her.
Aged around 25, she had resisted a thief who wanted to steal her car. He shot her dead – but then found he was unable to move the car anyway, as her body was blocking the way. So he ran off. Her corpse was left lying on the pavement.
“It’s incredible, it’s horrific – but it’s normal,” she told The Telegraph, half an hour later, dropping the incident casually into conversation when asked about the security situation in her home town. “It happens every day. And that is one of the reasons why things in Venezuela have to change.”
Mrs Flores, a 34-year-old lawyer, lives in Barinas – the home state of Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan president whose election almost 17 years ago ushered in a “Socialist revolution” in the South American nation. Yet Mrs Flores has joined the opposition activists hoping to put an end to Chavismo, here in the very heart of the Chavez kingdom.
Imprisoned by the government last year, for three months, on trumped-up terrorism charges, she is hoping to be elected on Sunday to her country’s National Assembly, in the most hotly-contested elections since Chavez stormed onto the political scene.
Venezuela has the biggest oil reserves in the world, yet basic goods like milk and medicine are often absent from the shops. After 16 years of an idealistic but inept “Bolivarian revolution” under Chavez and his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, voters are likely to punish the ruling Socialists in Sunday’s elections.
The economy is crumbling and corruption and crime both soaring. Meanwhile, Mr Maduro lacks personal charisma and political skill. Venezuelan analysts say the question is not whether the opposition will win the National Assembly election, but by how much. Private polling company Datanalisis’s most recent survey shows the opposition coalition, MUD – Democratic Unity Roundtable – winning 63.2 per cent of the vote, with the ruling PSUV on 28.2 per cent.
“I’m not frightened any more,” said Mrs Flores. “This isn’t about me – it’s about the future, and peace. We can and we will do better.”
Three possible scenarios are thought likely.
If the opposition wins a simple majority – 85 of the 167 seats, or 51 per cent – then they will be able to approve an amnesty law which will principally benefit Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader, who was imprisoned last year for 14 years on charges of inciting violence which were widely seen as politically motivated.
“The opposition should win in a landslide,” said Mr Lopez, one of four opposition leaders in prison. “And it must win, for our current humanitarian crisis will only worsen under PSUV rule.”
Shortages of food and medical supplies have become standard, he said, and the murder rate has more than doubled within a decade. So far this year, 125 police officers have been murdered in greater Caracas alone. If that same rate held in the United States, it would be the equivalent of 6,572 police murders across the country – versus the actual figure of 33.
“The Venezuelan people have realised that change is the only way forward,” he said.
Change is something that Freddy Superlano certainly believes in. He, like Mrs Flores, is also campaigning for a seat in the National Assembly representing Barinas, and hoping to deal a bloody nose to one of the seven Chavez siblings.
Mr Superlano, a 39-year-old former history teacher, is directly challenging Argenis Chavez, brother of the late president, in the poor town of Barinas, capital of the state of the same name.
Adan Chavez, another brother of the late “comandante”, is the powerful and feared governor of Barinas state. A third brother, Anibal, is mayor of the town of Barinas.
“Freddy Superlano will beat Argenis Chavez,” said Mr Superlano, confidently. “We’ve never had a fair election since the Chavezes came along, but this time we believe it will change.”
Mr Superlano has been labelled as a terrorist by Governor Adan Chavez, received anonymous threats, and admits he is frightened to take on the Chavezes on their home turf.
A fortnight ago an opposition politician, Luis Manuel Diaz, was murdered at a political rally. The wife of Mr Lopez, the jailed opposition leader, had just finished speaking and left the stage when Mr Diaz was shot.
Pro-government armed groups have fired weapons during at least seven MUD rallies over the past weeks, including two shootouts against Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state and a former presidential challenger.
“They are the state,” said Mr Superlano. “They’re the monarchy. They control everything here – everything. We are censored and prevented from appearing on TV, so we have gone door to door – and we’ve found huge support. Here there is no justice, no accountability, and people are fed up.”
The problem for Mr Maduro, the 53-year-old former bus driver hand-picked by Hugo Chavez to succeed him when he died of cancer in March 2013, is that the Chavez aura is fading fast – even in the Chavez homeland.
Mr Maduro has for the past two years tried to paint himself as the son of Chavez – his Twitter profile even describes him as such – and to benefit from the larger-than-life leader’s appeal. But while Chavez remains popular among many for helping the poor and ending decades of subservience to the United States, the goodwill for Mr Maduro has plummeted.
On Thursday, at a final rally in Maracay, 60 miles from Caracas, the president even evoked the ghost of Chavez – saying he was speaking to him through the rain.
“When the rain falls, we feel the presence of our immortal comrade,” he told the sea of red-clothed supporters, dressed in the ruling party’s colour. “We have the certainty of perfect victory.”
Mr Maduro may have the certainty – but just in case, he also has the army on standby.
In comments that have sent shivers down the spines of the opposition, he has threatened to bring the army on to the streets to “defend the revolution” if the ruling party loses. He said last month that he would personally take to the streets to confront opposition supporters – and warned that his critics “should pray for no violence to take place – as me and my supporters are like fire when they take it to the streets”.
“Confrontations between pro-government and opposition supporters are also likely on election day, including the possibility of shootouts in the worst-case scenarios,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Latin America analyst for IHS Janes, a risk consultancy. “Despite polls indicating that the opposition is performing strongly in terms of voters’ preferences, credible allegations of possible government intimidation tactics and of manipulation to the electoral system ahead of December’s parliamentary election will make the results highly contested.”
Mr Maduro has rejected all proposals for international monitors, leading to complaints from Latin American leaders, the EU and Amnesty International.
Even the head of the Organisation of American States, which normally is tolerant of Venezuela’s government, sent an unprecedented letter to the head of the electoral committee last month, warning that “transparency and electoral justice is not guaranteed”.
Mr Maduro, of course, blames many of Venezuela’s woes on familiar enemies, including big business – particularly those linked to United States. Last week he urged supporters not to “give in” to financial pressures and threatened to lock up managers of Kraft Heinz, the food giant, for alleged hoarding. The president also labelled them “bourgeois parasites.”
In February, Mr Maduro accused America of trying to foment a coup. In March, the Obama administration declared Venezuela a threat to US national security and sanctioned seven Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses.
America has also detained two nephews of Mr Maduro’s wife. The hapless pair – Franqui Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Campo Flores, 29 – allegedly tried to smuggle 800kgs of cocaine into the US. They were arrested in Haiti last month when they disembarked from their private jet. They are currently languishing in a New York prison, awaiting their appearance before a judge. They are seen as part of a much wider attempt by the Drugs Enforcement Agency to strike at the heart of Venezuela’s cartels, and their powerful political backers, who have become providers of much of the cocaine entering America.
The day after their arrest, Mr Maduro used a 45-minute speech to the United Nations in Switzerland to praise the benefits of Venezuela’s socialist policies and decry what he called “harassment by the imperialist powers of the United States”.
Yet back in Barinas, the finger-pointing at the great enemy to the north was seen as little more than a tired excuse for failure.
“It’s always the same – but imperialism has nothing to do with it,” said Mr Superlano. “It’s nonsense. We’re organised and determined. And we’re going to win.”
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