San Cristóbal, Venezuela. Under the midday heat, approximately 600 people are waiting in line, not an unusual feat for an average Venezuelan nowadays. Today, however, they are not waiting to purchase groceries, toilet paper or car parts, they are waiting to sign a national petition to execute a revocatory referendum against President Nicolás Maduro.
According to article 72 of Venezuela’s Constitution approved in 1999, spearheaded by then newly-elected Hugo Chavez, “having lapsed half of the period for which the official was elected, a number not less than twenty percent of the voters registered in the corresponding district could request the call for a referendum to revoke them from their term”. President Maduro was elected on April 14th, 2013.
In the past three years, Venezuela has experienced a steep economic downturn due the compounded result of a decrease in oil revenue, excessive public spending, poorly designed economic policies and alleged rampant corruption. While some of these cannot be directly attributed to President Maduro, a combination of his status as appointed heir of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, lack of charisma and a myriad of highly unpopular measures have made his administration widely disliked. Just last April, Venezuelans added a daily four-hour shutdown of electric service to the list of struggles that they face, which include shortages of essential goods such as flour, milk, butter, baby formula, lack of medicines and escalating inflation.
While waiting in line to sign I meet Cristina*, a member of the military force who took a two-hour bus ride to the city just to be able to sign the petition. She tells me “I am signing because I am tired of not being able to find food for my children or if I do I have to wait in line for three or four hours just to buy two bags of rice”. She further says “They threatened all us in my platoon. They told us that if we signed the revocatory petition that there will be consequences”, adding “but I don’t care because what they pay us is not even enough to buy groceries.”
Dissidence from the “revolution” has long been discouraged amongst government agencies, military divisions and even beneficiaries of governmental aid and services which are no longer viewed as citizen rights but rather a favor of the “revolution”. Just two weeks ago, Táchira State’s Governor Jose Vielma Mora, a member of the officialist party, encouraged recipients of public housing to “be grateful and not to betray the revolution, because it seems that after people achieve their goal, they forget about the Popular Fight Circles and to support our socialist government.”
Cristina’s defiance is remarkable specially considering that when in 2003 Venezuelans signed a national petition in order to revoke then-President Hugo Chavez the information about signatories was later used to deny them of public benefits, services and jobs in the public sector, including the military and the gas and oil sector. Additionally, President Maduro recently announced the creation of a governmental commission that will review each signature “one by one” while denying that this will be used against the population.
Here in Táchira, a bordering state with Colombia, Venezuelans have been dealing with the aftermath of the shutdown of the border almost nine months ago. Both sides have not only seen an economic stagnation during this period but also families have been separated, relationships have been fractured and the reasons used to the shutdown, curving contraband and reducing paramilitary operations, do not seem to have been substantially reduced.
Rogelia* is also in line to sign. She is from San Antonio, the main point of access to Colombia and whose family is spread out between the two territories. She is with her 8-year-old daughter who is asking her if she can sign too. Rogelia tells me “it is funny because you think they don’t know what is going on. But they do. They see us waiting in line for hours and sometimes they see us crack under the pressure”. She says “I’m doing this for her. She hasn’t seen her grandmother and cousins in nine months.”
The excitement among the crowd is undeniable. Coming from an electoral win against the Maduro administration last December, many feel optimistic about the possibility of succeeding in having a revocatory referendum. However, considering that arriving at the point of signing the petition was roadblocked by the National Electoral Council (NEC) by, amongst other things, delaying the delivery of the official forms to be signed, the path towards a revocatory is still not cleared.
According to the norms that regulate the promotion and request of the revocatory referendums, approved by the NEC in 2007, this is the first of many steps to arrive at the referendum and it requires the gathering of signatures of 1% of registered voters, or 197,978 citizens, just to kickstart the process that will eventually lead to the gathering of signatures of the twentieth percent of registered voters mentioned in article 72 of the Constitution.
At the end of the three-day-process it was reported that just in Tachira alone over 170,000 signatures were gathered and approximately 1,850,000 nationwide, almost ten times what it was required by the NEC.
Although we still have a long road ahead of us, Venezuelans are enthusiastic for the first time in a while. In the aftermath of signing the petition the conversations in the lines to buy groceries have shifted, at least temporarily, to the possibilities beyond our current reality.
Carlos Pérez Rojas.
* The names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of the interviewees.