Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gestures during a rally in Caracas, April 5, 2018.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gestures during a rally in Caracas, April 5, 2018. (Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters)

Their despair leads them to give up the fight against Maduro, while sheer hunger drives many to vote for him, though they despise him.

It was a surreal scene. At a government rally in downtown Caracas two months ago, a few desperate Venezuelans were pleading with President Nicolás Maduro to help them survive the country’s economic and social crisis, which had thrown their lives into danger.

They were writing simple notes to Maduro, who, at that moment, above them on an elevated stage, was delivering a blistering speech exalting the benefits of the revolution. His discourse was met by others with applause, sing-alongs, and playful chants. Filling the streets were tens of thousands of red-clad Chavistas, supporters of the so-called Bolivarian Revolution inaugurated by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, nearly 20 years ago. The noise of the crowd effectively drowned out the message of the pleading protesters below the stage.

The rally was a warmup for the launch of Maduro’s reelection campaign. Meanwhile, the National Electoral Council (CNE), stacked with the president’s allies, was about to ban two major opposition parties, Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, from competing in the presidential election. It was yet another strategic move by the regime to cement Maduro’s absolute power.

Full-blown dictatorship has arrived in Venezuela. The presidential election on May 20 is widely seen as a farce. Many predict that Maduro will win a six-year term by a comfortable margin. That will happen even though Venezuela, once the richest country in South America, is now mired in its worst economic crisis in modern times, according to the International Monetary Fund. The social fabric has been torn to pieces. Food distribution, health care, education, transportation, and public safety are all on the verge of collapse.

Ninety percent of the population lives in poverty, according to a recent study conducted by three respected Venezuelan universities. The economy and civil society have undergone a dramatic collapse under Nicolás Maduro’s watch.

Still, he will sail to a victory. How is it possible?

First, there is the traditional dictator’s textbook that Maduro is following: The president controls all political institutions: the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, most of the governorships, the CNE.

If the final vote count does not give Maduro the election, he can fall back on the CNE, which is in charge of counting the votes. That scenario probably won’t be needed, however, since Maduro has no serious challengers. The most charismatic opposition leaders are jailed, exiled, or banned from running. Sidelining the opposition has been in the works in Venezuela for years.

With one exception, the fractured opposition has called for a boycott of the May 20 election. Henri Falcon, a maverick candidate, has broken with his colleagues on this strategy. But Falcon, a former Chavista, faces an uphill battle, as many anti-Maduro voters will probably abstain from voting. Moreover, Falcon, unlike Maduro, has no political machine at his disposal. The president will flood his supporters with food, medicine, cash, and promises of free housing. They can get access to all of that in exchange for their votes.

“I will vote for Maduro because I don’t want to lose all the benefits the government will give me,” Justina, a middle-aged woman who gave only her first name, for fear of government reprisal, told me. She was never a Chavista, let alone a cheerleader for the Bolivarian Revolution. However, government food provisions have kept her from starvation. “It is impossible to hold on to your principles and integrity if you are going hungry,” she said sincerely, in a subdued tone.

There are many other faux Chavistas these days in Venezuela. Driven by the basic human need for food, they will cast their votes for a candidate they despise. Since last summer, when the government crushed the popular street revolt, in part by killing more than 120 people, Venezuela has been plunged into despair, apathy, and numbness.

Venezuelans have lost interest in politics, because they have to exhaust themselves just to get enough food, medicine, and other necessities to survive. The anxious rhythm of everyday life has left them, like the Cubans, dispirited, exhausted, and withdrawn.

Such mass depression caused by feelings of powerlessness might be the more powerful reason for Maduro’s expected electoral triumph, as many Venezuelans retreat from civic participation. When reporting in Cuba and as well as growing up in Prague under the thumb of the Soviet Union, I witnessed the strategy that people commonly use to avoid trouble from an oppressive regime: They become low-profile, almost invisible.

In Fidel Castro’s Cuba, people pushed away any thoughts, let alone passions, for a popular rebellion. They resigned themselves to leading lives that lacked ambition, big dreams, and optimism. Many in Cuba have told me in recent years that their highest priority was to get enough food for themselves and their families. And if there was any energy left, they were not willing to spend it on anti-government marches and become inevitable targets of the Cuban security forces.

Traveling across the Venezuela of Nicolás Maduro in January and February, I heard people explain similar reasons for turning inward. That way of life often results in withered or broken spirits. In Caracas, I watched as combativeness directed at the Maduro regime evaporated quickly in the face of its formidable and dangerous force. The Venezuelan government became just too menacing, a monster you didn’t want to face alone. You certainly didn’t want to provoke it and become its target.

Gradually, Venezuelans have lost interest in politics, because they have to exhaust themselves just to get enough food, medicine, and other necessities to survive. The anxious rhythm of everyday life has left them, like the Cubans, dispirited, exhausted, and withdrawn.

Nestor Aguilera, who has a farm in Galipán, a mountainous area in the state of Vargas, ignores everything that is beyond the perimeters of his plot of land. “I wanted to fall in love with an opposition leader, but it never happened,” he told me. “They are all accomplices.” Nestor believes that the opposition has been always too accommodating and that some political opponents outright collaborate with the regime, seeking lucrative posts at the regional level. Given that, he won’t be voting for Henri Falcon. Nestor fears that the government could come to take away his house, which he has been building for years, so he will remain silent for now.

So Maduro has people exactly where he wants them: stricken by fear, retreating into silence and invisibility. The last hope of averting or at least slowing down Maduro’s march toward dictatorship appears to be slipping away. His opponents fear that they are heading toward not simply another electoral defeat. This time, they feel, they are on the brink of losing a war.

— Eduard Freisler, a Czech reporter based in New York, writes this from Caracas.

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