07 July 2024

Venezuela’s opposition puts ‘freedom’ at heart of its bid to reclaim power

07 July 2024

Venezuela’s opposition is putting “freedom” at the heart of its campaign to oust incumbent President Nicolas Maduro in this month’s elections.

Calls for “libertad” have been common among at rallies by opposition supporters with Venezuelan flags in their hands ahead of the highly anticipated July 28 presidential election.

With the official start of campaigns this week, they were deafening during a massive rally in the western Venezuelan state of Barinas, the home state of the late fiery President Hugo Chavez.

Students, state employees, retired people, agriculture workers and business owners were among the thousands gathered in support of Edmundo Gonzalez Urrutia, the only candidate with a real chance of ending President Nicolas Maduro’s quest for a third term.

Their chants, collectively, represent long-sought freedom from the 25-year rule of self-described socialist governments.

Individually, people are seeking wide-ranging freedoms, including the freedom to post government criticisms on social media without fearing repercussions.

“I want economic freedom, freedom of purchasing power, freedom of a living wage,” Virginia Linares, 41, said with teary eyes.

“We feel locked in, we feel like something is being taken away from us because a salary that is not decent is a salary that overshadows us as people, we do not achieve the things we want, our dreams.”

Public employees these days earn a monthly minimum wage of about 3.60 US dollars plus 130 US dollars in bonuses, while private-sector workers make on average 210 US dollars a month.

Neither monthly pay is enough for a family to buy a basic basket of goods, which costs about 380 US dollars.

Ms Linares lost her beauty supply store in 2017 as a result of the social, economic and political crisis that has marked the entirety of Mr Maduro’s 11-year presidency.

Her business is now online only, and her concerns over the country’s economic conditions have increased now that her 17-year-old son has finished high school and is thinking about his future.

The July 28 election is shaping up to be the biggest challenge that Venezuela’s ruling party has faced since Mr Chavez became president in 1999.

The party wants to maintain its absolute control for six more years, but its base, including in Barinas, is divided and disenchanted over the crisis.

The state had long been a bastion of the late president’s movement, Chavismo.

His brothers, Argenis Chavez and Adan Chávez, and father, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, all served stints as governor from 1998 to 2021.

The opposition ended the Chavezes reign and has since used that victory as motivation for its base.

Mr Chavez, elected in 1998, promised to improve the lives of Venezuela’s poorest using the country’s oil.

He expanded social services, including housing and education thanks to the country’s oil bonanza, which generated revenues estimated at some 981 billion US dollars between 1999 and 2011 as oil prices soared.

But corruption, a decline in oil production and economic policies led to a crisis that became evident in 2012.

Before Mr Chavez’s death of cancer in 2013, he picked Mr Maduro as his successor.

Mr Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have fended off challenges by barring rivals from elections and painting them as out-of-touch elitists in league with foreign powers.

This time, their government control led to a court ruling blocking the candidacy of opposition powerhouse Maria Corina Machado, who won the October primary of the Unitary Platform coalition with more than 90% of support.

She has thrown her support behind Mr Gonzalez, a former ambassador who has never held public office.

At opposition rallies, including Saturday’s, people say they will undoubtedly vote for Mr Gonzalez but also acknowledge that it is Ms Machado who they see as leader.

Venezuela’s crisis has motivated more than 7.7 million people to migrate.

When Mr Gonzalez asked the crowd to raise their hand if one of their relatives had migrated, people were quick to react.

He promised them to create conditions so that their loved ones can return.

Miguel Herrera, a school handyman, is worried that his teenage daughters might end up migrating in a few years if Mr Maduro is re-elected.

He thinks that just as Barinas ushered the opposition into the governor’s office, voters across the country can get Mr Gonzalez elected later this month.

His chants for freedom were for a change that would give his children the freedom to choose to stay in Venezuela.

He also wants his rights to quality health care and other public services to be respected.

“I don’t want my daughters to go somewhere else, at all,” said Mr Herrera, who voted for Mr Maduro in the past two elections.

“Politicians made promises and they didn’t deliver and people began to wake up until they opened their eyes.

Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Edmundo Gonzalez, accompanied by wife Mercedes, flashes a thumbs up at supporters as he arrives to his campaign rally in Barinas, Venezuela (Ariana Cubillas/AP) (AP)

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox