Caracas barrio of Antímano. ©Rodrigo Romero

People hurriedly walking out of the Mamera Metro station in western Caracas this past Sunday, were in for a surprise. Their bewildered faces gave no clue if the surprise was good or bad, they looked merely confused.

An old lady selling cigarettes right at the Metro’s exit said out loud what everyone seemed to be thinking at the moment: “Shit! [¡verga!] There are still people that like Maduro!”

The government was staging a simulation of the presidential elections set for May 20. As has become usual, the Bolivarian government uses these drills to test the readiness of its constituency and to ensure acceptable levels of participation on the actual election day, or perhaps to prepare an alternative mobilization in case it faces defeat.

Although the international community has said the May 20 elections are a fraud, neither the government nor the opposition are showing signs that the process will be any different from the elections we have had over the past 17 years.

The only significant difference is that this time the most important opposition candidate is running outside of the opposition coalition: former governor of Lara state, Henry Falcón.

In the barrio of Mamera it looks as if there are still enough loyal supporters of the Socialism of the Twenty First Century Project to ensure that the upcoming elections are seen as legitimate–enough supporters to defeat an opposition that has decided, for the most part, not to participate.

At least 200 people were standing at the doors of the Mercedes Limardo Elementary School. In this voting center the opposition didn’t win even in its best showing so far–the legislative elections of 2015. And for 2018, although the decrease of government supporters seems notable, majority support for the government still seems like a safe bet.

Waving socialist party flags and wearing party colors t-shirts, people waited in line to express their support for Nicolás Maduro in the voting simulation. “There is nowhere else to go,” said Mr. Armando Zúñiga standing in line, “he’s the only one who at least sends us a box [CLAP boxes from the government’s food distribution program], and he’s not going to lose, you can forget about that.”

Armando reflects popular wisdom and argues that there are two reasons pushing voters to the polls on May 20. On the one hand, there is a lack of a credible alternative to the government, no one else seems to be offering convincing solutions. On the other, there are the constant threats against public employees and barrio dwellers from the government. “If you don’t vote for Maduro, you don’t get the [CLAP] box.”

In other places, however, the simulation centers seemed empty. In El Junquito, also in western Caracas, there were only a dozen people hanging around. 44 year-old María Rodriguez, the person responsible for the CLAP program in the area, repeated almost to the letter the government’s discourse: “We are in the middle of an economic war, the only ones that can get us out of this are Maduro and his people. If we hand power to the escualidos [opposition] you can be sure we will be worse off.”

But asked about the low levels of participation in the simulation event, María becomes evasive and seems to recognize that the opposition’s strategy of abstention could be partly successful: “I wouldn’t know what to tell you, I think people are confused. People think that Maduro is to blame for what is happening and they don’t realize the poor man is fighting a war to death. But OK, we’re still loyal–even if people are weak-minded and believe the lies of the opposition–because he is, for better or for worse, the one who’s sending us the CLAP boxes. As a good son of Chávez, he is concerned about the people.”

El Junquito residents pass by on cars and buses and look disdainfully at the simulation center. The owner of a nearby store tells me in a low but convinced tone: “That son of a bitch [coño ‘e madre] is gone,” in reference to president Maduro.

Jefferson Bolívar, a 35 year-old worker at a local bakery, is enthusiastically trying to convince his co-workers of an idea they consider crazy: to vote for Henry Falcón: “Look,” he begins his spirited discourse,

“The only alternative the people have ever had here is to vote. We know that protests lead to nothing. What happened in 2014? What about 2017? Nothing! But in 2015 the people went out and voted and the government had no option but to concede and opposition deputies were elected. If they let themselves be bullied [joderse] that’s another story. There is nothing else we can do. Pay attention! [paren bola], we have no armament, you can’t go out and protest because you get killed like an idiot [güevón] and we´re definitely not in favor of gringos coming over here and invading this shit. If people turn out and vote there is a chance brother. Just imagine if that crazy guy Falcón gets 6 million, 7 million, and defeats Maduro. Shit! [¡coño!] There will be no doubt! He [Maduro] will have to hand over power.”

Jefferson ends his discourse gesticulating like an evangelical pastor.

But Jefferson’s well-articulated discourse is met with disbelief by one of his friends.

“My friend, even if the crazy guy [Falcón] wins, you still have to deal with Diosdado [Cabello], and also with the Constituent Assembly, and with a bunch of chavistas that are not going to hand over power that easily because they know that everyone including the Boy Scouts are looking for them. You said it yourself, in 2015 we voted, and they [the opposition deputies] couldn’t do anything. Those are all lies, no one else [other than Maduro] is going to win, and nothing is going to get fixed.”

This pessimistic answer by Jackson’s friend puts an end to the discussion, and it reflects ideas held by many voters. What can be done?

The lack of clear direction from an opposition that seems to invite supporters to abstain from participating and offers no clear strategy for the day after May 20, is working well for the government. If we count the government’s diehard supporters, those voting out of fear of losing their CLAP, and those who will vote for Henry Falcón, perhaps there will be a high enough level of participation to make the May 20 elections legitimate.

Yesman Utrera is a Venezuelan journalist

Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde