The Maduro regime is disrupting the opposition's efforts before Venezuela's election
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Opposition leaders in Venezuela are gearing up for next year's presidential election. They hope to oust Nicolas Maduro, the country's autocratic leader. To decide which candidate will take on Maduro, the opposition is holding a primary on Sunday. Reporter John Otis has more.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In the city of Maracaibo in western Venezuela, political activists are trying to drum up support for the primary. The voting is designed to unify the country's divided opposition behind a single candidate who will be strong enough to defeat President Maduro.
ELIMAR DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: One activist, Elimar Diaz, tells a neighborhood meeting that voting for one of the 12 candidates on the primary ballot is a vital first step towards recovering freedom and democracy. Indeed, the Maduro regime has cracked down on Venezuela's democracy, crushing protests, jailing dissidents and muzzling the press. Maduro has also led Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in history, prompting nearly 8 million Venezuelans to flee the country. But in the run-up to Sunday's vote, the Maduro regime has thrown up numerous roadblocks.
JAVIER CORRALES: They're trying a bunch of strategies to ensure that the whole thing unravels.
OTIS: That's Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College. He points out that the opposition will not be allowed to use the country's polling stations, usually located in public schools. Instead, the opposition must scramble to set up ad hoc voting centers in private homes, parks and playgrounds.
So this is a neighborhood basketball court, and kids are playing here. But on the day of the primary, it's going to turn into a polling place.
However, only about 3,000 polling places will be up and running on primary day compared to the normal 14,000.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: At the neighborhood meeting in Maracaibo, there was a lot of confusion over just where people should cast their ballots. There's also been disinformation spreading on the internet.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: This video falsely claims the primary will be held in November. All these factors will reduce voter turnout, says Caracas political analyst Eugenio Martinez.
EUGENIO MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: He says only about 1.4 million Venezuelans are expected to cast ballots. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime has banned three of the top candidates in the primary from taking part in next year's presidential election. Maria Corina Machado, who is expected to win the primary, is one of those banned candidates. She was reminded of that fact by Diosdado Cabello, one of the most powerful figures within the Maduro regime.
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DIOSDADO CABELLO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "Lady, you are disqualified," Cabello said on his TV program. "You are not going to run." But at a briefing with foreign correspondents in Caracas, Machado insisted that if she wins the primary, she would not back down and will run against Maduro next year.
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MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: She said, "We will create enough political pressure inside and outside of Venezuela to sit down with the regime and secure conditions for a competitive election." A free presidential election is also a condition Washington is demanding of Maduro in exchange for easing sanctions on Venezuela's vital oil industry. Envoys for Maduro and the opposition start meetings in Barbados tomorrow to discuss electoral conditions.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: For now, many people here in Maracaibo are focused on Sunday's primary election. They include Noelis Valles, a 55-year-old secretary.
NOELIS VALLES: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "We're tired. The country is full of problems, and our loved ones are leaving," she says. "People want things to change, so we are going to go out and vote in the primary."
For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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