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Venezuelans living abroad can't meet absentee requirements for presidential election

FILE - Venezuelans sing their native country's national anthem during a protest
Fernando Vergara
/
AP
FILE - Venezuelans, who support opposition leader María Corina Machado, sing their native country's national anthem during a protest demanding free and fair elections in Venezuela's upcoming election, in Bolivar Square in Bogota, Colombia, April 6, 2024.

MEXICO CITY — Giovanny Tovar left Venezuela five years ago in search of a job after his country came undone under the watch of President Nicolás Maduro. He now sells empanadas and tequeños in the streets of Peru’s capital, where he pushes around a small cart outfitted with a deep fryer.

Tovar wants nothing more than to vote Maduro out of office. He sees an opportunity for change in July's highly anticipated presidential election but he won't be able to cast a vote. Neither will millions of other Venezuelan emigrants because of costly and time-consuming government prerequisites that are nowhere to be found in Venezuela's election laws.

“I really don’t understand why they put so many obstacles in the way of us exercising our vote,” Tovar said before offering the main reason emigrants suspect is behind the prerequisites: “I really would like to vote but not to give the vote to Maduro.”

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More than half of the estimated 7.7 million Venezuelans who have left their homeland during the complex crisis that has marked Maduro's 11-year presidency are estimated to be registered to vote in Venezuela. But of all the Venezuelans fanned out around the world, including those who emigrated before the crisis, government figures show only about 107,000 are registered to vote outside the South American country.

Analysts and emigrants assert people who left Venezuela during the crisis would almost certainly vote against Maduro if given the chance. Maduro, who became interim president in 2013 following the death of the fiery Hugo Chávez, is seeking a third term in office.

Venezuelan law contemplates absentee voting, allowing citizens to vote at embassies and consulates. Interested voters must be properly registered with their foreign address and cannot be living in their host country illegally or seeking refugee or asylum status there.

The residency requirement alone reduces significantly the number of people who can register as the majority of emigrants lack legal status. During this year's registration period, which ends Tuesday, even those who have been granted temporary residency in host countries are being turned away by consular officials because the diplomatic outposts are demanding proof of permanent status.

“Permanent Residence Documents issued by the host country” must show “validity of ... at least 3 years from the current date” and “must have been issued at least 1 year in advance,” according to a flyer outside the consulate in Colombia's capital, Bogota. But Venezuela's election law only calls for interested voters to “have residency or any other status that denotes legality of stay” in a foreign country.

Peru has granted Tovar temporary, not permanent, residency.

Further complicating matters for some interested voters is the requirement to have a Venezuelan passport, which is cost prohibitive and nowadays takes weeks to several months to process.

Maria Cordova and her family, who moved to Mexico 18 years ago, participated in the October presidential primary for the opposition faction backed by the United States. That election was organized by a commission independent of Venezuela's ruling party-loyal National Electoral Council. The commission allowed interested voters like Cordova to register to vote online, eventually signing up more than 200,000 people around the world.

When it came time to cast a ballot, Cordova traveled from Cancun to Mexico City, where primary organizers set up a voting center. Now, Cordova wants to vote against Maduro on July 28, but she hasn't received the passport she has been trying to renew since last year.

“It is a plan with ulterior motives because in order to apply, you need to pay,” she said, referring to the passport renewal process.

Polling suggests that Venezuelans overwhelmingly want to go to the polls and would trounce Maduro if given the chance.

Official estimates show that about 36,000 of the 107,000 Venezuelans properly registered to vote abroad live in the U.S. They face an insurmountable obstacle: Consulates where they would typically cast their ballots are closed because Venezuela and the U.S. severed diplomatic relations after Maduro’s 2018 re-election.

That contest was widely considered fraudulent and turned Maduro into a pariah. Hopes for a more democratic presidential election briefly went up when Maduro and the faction of the opposition behind the primary agreed in October to work together on electoral conditions that would level the playing field.

Among the issues both sides were expected to work on was updating the country’s voting rolls. But this and other changes did not materialize after Maduro's government began to defy the spirit, if not necessarily the letter, of the agreement, including by blocking the presidential candidacy of opposition powerhouse Maria Corina Machado — who won the primary — arresting part of her staff and opening criminal investigations against primary organizers.

Christopher Sabatini, a research fellow at the Chatham House in London, said the opposition may complain about the obstacles faced by emigrants, but it is unlikely to prioritize facilitating voting abroad given the remaining challenges it faces within the country.

“There’s still plenty of people within Venezuela that have never voted before, that have come of age, and engaging those people in the democratic exercise is sort of more of a priority for the opposition," Sabatini said.

Most people who have left Venezuela over the past decade settled in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia is home to the largest contingent of them, with more than 2.8 million living across the country.

One of the main barriers that Venezuelans there say they are facing is the refusal of consular officials to accept their Temporary Protection Permit — a document issued by the Colombian government that gives them access to the health care system, education and jobs — as proof of legal status.

Nicole García, a Venezuelan who is part of the grassroots group Venezuelans in Barranquilla, said the request for documents that most migrants do not have is a way in which consulates seek to limit participation and transparency in the election.

“Consular officials are people who are part of the government or who are part of the regime," she said.

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Associated Press writer Astrid Suarez in Bogota, Colombia, and videojournalist Mauricio Munoz in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.

The Associated Press
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