By Fernando Peinado
How much do you value your vote? For those of us who can, casting a ballot in a presidential election costs no more than a bus or subway ride to our consulate or to the closest polling station and takes no more than a few hours. But for some SIPA students, the presidential election in Venezuela was quite the investment. Motivated by polls showing a close election between opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and President Hugo Chávez, two students paid more than $1,000 to fly to Caracas so that their votes would count.
However, their hopes that Capriles would put an end to Chávez´s 14-year rule were shattered. The final tally, released by the nation’s electoral council, gave President Chávez 54% of the vote. Capriles held 44%. The victory allows Chávez, 58, to continue with his socialist model for at least six more years. All Venezuelan students interviewed by Communiqué supported Capriles and blamed Chávez’s policies for a surge in crime, basic goods shortages, and mismanagement.
“It is the most expensive vote in history,” said Dariela Sosa, a first-year MPA student, before her flight. “Some people ask if one vote really makes a difference, but these elections are more than just about deciding who will rule Venezuela in the next six years. At stake is the model of country in which we want to live.”
Both she and Melisa Socorro, also a first-year MPA student, flew from New York to Caracas to cast their ballots. They could not vote at the Venezuelan Consulate in Manhattan because the voter registration period closed in March, long before they moved to New York. Interviewed before election day, they said that their vote was worth more than the price of the flight. At that time, some polls put Capriles narrowly ahead of Chávez, making Sunday’s election the most serious electoral challenge to Chávez since he took power.
For Socorro, who spent just 36 hours in Caracas, casting her vote was both a moral prerogative and a national duty. “What am I doing at a school of public policy if I do not engage in such a crucial election?” she told Communiqué. “How am I going to explain to my classmates that I did not go to vote?”
On election day, Sosa and Socorro did additional work to support the electoral process. Sosa, who is a journalist with Radio Caracas Radio, anchored a live program while voting was taking place. Socorro volunteered as an observer for the opposition at a polling station.
Other Venezuelan students at SIPA also participated in the elections. Rodulfo Prieto and Cecilia Ramírez, both second-year students, volunteered at the polling station in the Consulate in Manhattan. Giuliana Carducci, first-year MPA, took a bus to cast her vote at the Consulate in Washington DC where she is registered.
Their support for Capriles was shared by the vast majority of Venezuelans in the United States. Thousands of Venezuelans traveled to New Orleans from Florida to cast their ballots after Chávez closed the Consulate in Miami earlier this year. The city is known for being home to many “antichavistas.” For them, Capriles, 40, with his left of center rhetoric and energetic style, was the man most suited to defeat Chávez.
Under Chávez, Venezuelan society has become more polarized and dozens of thousands have left the country, mainly for the U.S., where 215,000 Venezuelans lived in 2010, up from about 91,500 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The list of complaints against Chávez´s government includes the scarcity of basic goods, a double digit inflation rate and a lack of respect for basic democratic rules such as the separation of powers. Chávez´s sympathizers defend his record in reduction of poverty and illiteracy.
But both for his opponents and supporters, crime is the number one concern. Murder and kidnapping rates have soared since Chávez took office. Around 18,850 people were murdered last year, up from 4,550 in 1998, according to the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia, a non-government group. Venezuela is now the second most violent country in Latin America, below Honduras, but above Mexico and Colombia, according to United Nations figures.
Election results were a blow for Venezuelan students at SIPA. Their rejection of Chávez´s Venezuela is such that some see now their prospects of returning home after school drifting further away. Prieto says that Venezuela has turned into too dangerous a place to live in. “I once was robbed and kidnapped for two hours (‘express kidnapping,’ a common crime in Venezuela),” he said “I cannot return to a country where my wife and my future children will be in danger.”
“I´m very sad and disappointed, but there will be more chances,” said Carducci, adding that Chávez’s victory has an important impact on her. “My intention was to return and work for my country if Capriles won. Now the option of remaining abroad looks stronger.”
Speaking to Communiqué from Caracas right after the results were released, Socorro saw a very bleak picture. “I feel I have lost my bearings and my country.” Despite their discouragement, Sosa, Socorro and other Venezuelans at SIPA received a thumbs up from many of their fellow students, who recognized their effort and commitment.
Fernando Peinado is a first-year Master of International Affairs student.