Daniela Flamini

It was about five in the morning when the rain began to pour down. There had been ominous clouds looming in the sky when we’d arrived to the center about an hour and a half earlier, and now, despite the ponchos and umbrellas, we were all equally soaked to the bone.

It was April 14th, 2013, and we were in an electorate center in New Orleans, Louisiana. We were the Venezuelan voters and community of South Florida, and we’d been left without a consulate to vote in when the Venezuelan government had shut down the one in Miami. Thousands of people had decided that they were going to exercise their right to vote regardless, even if it took a plane ticket to New Orleans to do so. My mother and other community heads organized different ways to get people flown or bussed up for free on chartered planes and busses, while others simply donated money or found any way they could to mobilize community members.

I stayed up for a little over 30 hours that day, as did all the people I was working alongside. Fifteen at the time, I was the only volunteer who’d been too young to vote.

For those who could, voting was everything. Lined up for hours, having suffered through extraneously long bus rides, holding on to their babies, or to their crutches, these Venezuelan voters truly believed that this time, finally, because of their ballots, the country would be rid of Hugo Chavez.

Chavez was elected president in 1998, after having staged an unsuccessful coup in 1992. By then, the economy had gone through four severe cycles of depression, and the two most important and established political parties had begun to fragment. The populace no longer had faith in its government, and Chavez had the charisma necessary for speaking to the masses and winning over minds and hearts. With promises of equality, representation and prosperity for all, Chavez won over the country.

Mere hours after having been sworn into office, he called a referendum on a constituent assembly with the purpose of rewriting the Venezuelan constitution. Met with initial opposition, he got past all barriers and institutions that were rejecting his demands, including the Venezuelan Supreme Court, and eventually “declared the Constituent Assembly to embody the limitless sovereign power of the people.” He went on to disassemble the judiciary and the legislative branch, thus removing all institutional checks on executive power.

A demonstrator wears a skull mask with messages that read in Spanish: “Venezuelans die of hunger, Venezuela agonizes” during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Jan. 23, 2017. Thousands of opponents of President Nicolas Maduro are marching to demand authorities set a date for overdue regional elections. The march coincides with the anniversary marking the return of democracy following the overthrow in 1958 of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Over time, it became clear that Chavez’s promises of equality and prosperity for all would be replaced by a reality of power-driven corruption and “widespread attacks on basically all aspects of civil and political rights.” The government’s new statist economic policies greatly increased opportunities for black-market activity and collusion between public officials and organized crime networks. Arguing that the media could not be trusted, Chavez set up a state communications infrastructure which he used to “propagate his own political and ideological program.” In 2010, a law was passed that “threatened to sanction any ‘political organization’ that received foreign funding or hosts foreign visitors who criticize the government.” The politicization of the judicial branch has been taken to such an extreme that high courts never rule against the government. Even the police and the military are prone to widespread corruption, with “arbitrary detention and torture of suspects and extrajudicial killings with few convictions.” The accumulation of power in the executive branch has allowed the government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute its critics, which has often meant police brutality, poor person conditions, and impunity for security forces when they commit such abuses as arbitrary arrests, beatings, and denial of basic due process.

After fifteen years of the same statist policies, and despite Chavez’s death in 2013, Venezuela now has the highest inflation rate in the world and some of the worst scarcity in the region. People’s daily concerns include being able to find food, medicine and sustenance. His presidency saw the economy turn from mixed policies into completely socialistic ones, and against the deterioration and collapse that occurred as a result of this, nothing changed; the executive branch was so powerful under Chavez’s new constitution that he had no other bureaucracy or institution challenging his reforms. Today’s Venezuela is a realization of what our worst fears were when we lined up to vote on that rainy, dark morning. Industry and production have stalled, and there is no gas available in the country with the biggest oil reserves in the world. Babies are dying in hospitals because of lack of simple products like milk and basic medicines. Malaria and tuberculosis have become serious threats again, as people are rushing to the muddy outskirts of the country where there is work available but where diseases have found where to feast.

Chavez is why eight thousand voters mobilized over eight hundred miles to dip their finger in purple ink and vote that weekend in April. We’d done it a year before on October 7th, during the normal round of presidential elections that pitted Henrique Capriles Radonski against Chavez, and we were doing it again in April, a few months after Chavez had died. That time, we were voting against his successor, Nicolas Maduro. For the second time in two years, we lost.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of Venezuela’s situation is the measures the government has taken in order to stay in control and repress opposition. Being politically active doesn’t mean registering to vote, it means risking your life in a protest against the corrupt police. As Human Rights Watch states, under President Chavez and now President Maduro’s leadership, “the accumulation of power in the executive branch and erosion of human rights have enabled the government to intimidate, censor and prosecute its critics, leading to increasing levels of self-censorship.” Political opponents are often jailed and tortured. Figures like the inflation rate, poverty rate, and unemployment rate are near impossible to gauge, because the government either publishes skewed and false data or doesn’t publish data at all. International journalists are not welcome, frequently deported, and the only media outlets in the country are owned and heavily controlled by the government.

What constantly offers us hope is the opposition, people like Henrique Capriles who ran against Chavez in 2012, like Leopoldo Lopez who was sentenced for 13 years for inciting protests, like Maria Corina Machado who risks her life every day on the streets protesting and telling people that things will change for the better.

Today it is clear to the world that Venezuela’s government has turned into nothing less than a dictatorship. Though the constitution allows for the citizens to hold a referendum after two years of a presidency, and though all the proper steps have been followed for such referendum to result in an election, the government has purposefully stalled and refused to cooperate. People are living in such horrible, inhumane conditions that Maduro and his regime know they would not be able to survive an election, even with their usual tricks and rigging in which they force the masses to vote in favor of them. For seventeen years, elections were the one thing that seemed to keep the idea of democracy afloat; now, the people don’t even have that to hope for. Venezuela is living under a cruel, ruthless dictatorship that has failed its starving and dying population and will do anything to prevent losing its control over the country. Over the next months, I intend to explore the many dimensions of what corruption in the government and lack of human rights accountability has lead to, and bring light to atrocity of the conditions that my people are being forced to live in.