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They fled oppression in Venezuela, but it followed them abroad

The Venezuelan Consulate in Madrid on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Some Venezuelans said they arrived hours before the consulate opened to try to register to vote in the July 28 election, but were unsuccessful. (Emilio Parra Doiztua/The New York Times)
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The Venezuelan Consulate in Madrid on Wednesday, July 3, 2024. Some Venezuelans said they arrived hours before the consulate opened to try to register to vote in the July 28 election, but were unsuccessful. (Emilio Parra Doiztua/The New York Times)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The line outside the Venezuelan Consulate in Madrid stretched down the block. Pregnant women, families with small children, older people and those with disabilities arrived as early as 4 a.m. — five hours before the office opened — trying to register to vote in Venezuela’s highly anticipated presidential election.

Adriana Rodríguez, 47, who left Venezuela in 2018, showed up at 8 a.m., two days in a row. Both times, she waited four hours before reaching the front of the line, only to be turned away, she said, always with the same explanation: “They could not register any more people.”

With Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, trailing badly in polls before the July 28 vote, the government has imposed stringent rules making registering to vote nearly impossible for millions of Venezuelans living abroad, including in the United States, Spain and Latin American countries.

Many left their homeland because of harsh economic and political conditions.

As a result, the government’s tactics are tantamount to sweeping electoral fraud, election experts say, since as many as 25% of Venezuela’s eligible voters live outside the country, and a large number would most likely not vote for Maduro.

Adriana Rodr’guez, 47, who left Venezuela in 2018, in Madrid on Thursday, July 4, 2024. Rodr’guez showed up at the Venezuelan Consulate in Madrid two days in a row but could not register to vote in the July 28 election. (Emilio Parra Doiztua/The New York Times)
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Adriana Rodr’guez, 47, who left Venezuela in 2018, in Madrid on Thursday, July 4, 2024. Rodr’guez showed up at the Venezuelan Consulate in Madrid two days in a row but could not register to vote in the July 28 election. (Emilio Parra Doiztua/The New York Times)

Between 3.5 million and 5.5 million Venezuelans eligible to vote live outside the country — out of a total electorate of 21 million people, according to election experts and opposition activists.

Only about 69,000 Venezuelans living abroad are registered to vote.

“They are disenfranchising people on purpose,” said Fernanda Buril, a deputy director at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, an organization outside Washington that promotes democracy. “It’s a complete violation of all kinds of election integrity standards.”

At Venezuelan consulates in various countries, hundreds of citizens wait day after day in long lines, facing unexplained delays, confusing instructions and unexpected requirements from unhurried officials, according to Venezuelans interviewed in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain.

Rodríguez, an interior designer who said she felt “forced” to leave Venezuela after rising repression and a sinking economy made a future there “unviable,” described the intense anger and frustration as people hoping to register to vote were turned away by consular officials.

“You feel like you’re letting your country down,” said Rodríguez, adding that she wanted to cast a ballot for the opposition. “Why do I have to go through this to exercise my right to vote?”

FILE Ñ Supporters of President Nicolas Maduro during a get-out-the-vote event in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, June 9, 2024. Maduro is trailing in the polls. (Adriana Loureiro Fernandez/The New York Times)
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FILE Ñ Supporters of President Nicolas Maduro during a get-out-the-vote event in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, June 9, 2024. Maduro is trailing in the polls. (Adriana Loureiro Fernandez/The New York Times)

Venezuela’s electoral authority and its embassy in Spain did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Maduro has accused the opposition of planning to commit electoral fraud and stage a coup.

In some cases, the Venezuelan government, election experts said, is strictly applying existing rules to make it more difficult to register. The most common tactic, they said, is the use of a law requiring citizens abroad to possess “residence” or “legal permanence” in the country where they live to be eligible to vote. In the current election cycle, that rule has been used to reject many forms of identification, including visas, that had been acceptable in the past.

In Colombia, roughly 2 million Venezuelans hold temporary protected status as part of a landmark effort by the Colombian government to legalize nearly all Venezuelans in the country. But Venezuela does not accept that status as proof of residence.

(For Venezuelans in Uruguay, the Venezuelan government requires a four-year Uruguayan identification card, even though Uruguay does not issue such cards to foreign legal residents that are valid for more than three years.)

By erecting obstacles to voting abroad, Venezuela’s government is following a playbook used by other nondemocratic countries, Buril said.

“Election fraud is not anymore just election-day ballot stuffing,” she said. “It’s throughout the whole process.”

Dayana Hern‡ndez, who works as a receptionist at a dentistÕs office, in Madrid on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. She left Venezuela in 2018 after the countryÕs deepening economic woes made it difficult to gain access to care for her son, who has autism. (Emilio Parra Doiztua/The New York Times)
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Dayana Hern‡ndez, who works as a receptionist at a dentistÕs office, in Madrid on Tuesday, July 2, 2024. She left Venezuela in 2018 after the countryÕs deepening economic woes made it difficult to gain access to care for her son, who has autism. (Emilio Parra Doiztua/The New York Times)

The upcoming vote could be decisive in determining the future of democracy in a country that holds the world’s largest oil reserves, but that has seen nearly 8 million people, about a fourth of its population, leave amid a failing economy and years of authoritarian rule.

The government agreed to hold free and fair elections under pressure from the United States, and in exchange for relief from crushing U.S. sanctions. But Maduro’s government, critics say, has thrown up roadblocks at every turn to try to prevent a credible vote.

Still, a united opposition and what surveys suggest is an intense hunger for change among many Venezuelans could pose the biggest challenge to Maduro’s 11-year hold on power.

The erosion of voting rights started more than 10 years ago and has gradually worsened, said Eugenio Martínez, director of Votoscopio, an electoral monitoring organization.

According to Venezuelan law, citizens abroad should be able to register year-round at any embassy or consulate if they have a Venezuelan national identity card, even if it has expired. But the government has allowed registration for only limited periods.

This year, the electoral authority designated a 29-day period between March and April for Venezuelans to register or update their personal information, including where they live and their polling station. But even that period was cut short at several embassies and consulates by a variety of problems, including computer malfunctions.

During the brief window the government opened, only 508 Venezuelans managed to register to vote worldwide, according to data collected by Votoscopio.

“We have called it, without any fear of exaggeration, a massive preelection fraud,” said Ligia Bolívar, who is based in Bogotá, Colombia, and is a founder of Provea, a Venezuelan human rights organization.

In countries that have broken off diplomatic relations with Maduro’s government, like the United States, Venezuelans have no way to register to vote.

New rules adopted for this month’s election also require applicants to present a valid Venezuelan passport, a document that can cost more than $300.

That is about a third of Dayana Hernández’s monthly salary as a receptionist at a dentist’s office in Spain. Hernández, 40, left Venezuela in 2018 after the country’s deepening economic woes made it difficult to gain access to care for her son, who has autism. She blamed the government of Maduro, whom she had hoped to vote out of power, for the country’s situation.

FILE Ñ After entering the United States, a migrant holds his Venezuelan passport in El Paso, Texas, on Oct. 7, 2022. VenezuelaÕs government requires a valid Venezuelan passport to register to vote. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The New York Times)
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FILE Ñ After entering the United States, a migrant holds his Venezuelan passport in El Paso, Texas, on Oct. 7, 2022. VenezuelaÕs government requires a valid Venezuelan passport to register to vote. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/The New York Times)

Not being able to register to vote left her feeling “devastated and powerless,” she said. “You feel you can’t contribute.”

Bolívar, a founder of Provea, called it “paradoxical” that the people most affected by Venezuela’s economic downturn and autocratic government will most likely have little say in determining its future. Bolívar, who has been in Bogotá for five years, was herself not able to register. She has had her current Colombian visa for three years — short of the five years necessary to become a permanent resident and be eligible to register for Venezuela’s election.

“People had a lot of expectation to register,” Bolívar said. But, she added, “The government put an end to all that.”

Victor Faza, 25, a Venezuelan living in Argentina, was unable to register because of an expired passport. Nevertheless, he became active in a local nonprofit organization petitioning the Venezuelan Consulate to set up more registration stations. But talking to consulate staff to try to facilitate voter registration “was literally like talking to the wall,” he said.

He wants to return to his country — if a free and fair election leads to a change in government.

“I don’t see myself returning to Venezuela under a dictatorship,” he said. “This is the last chance to see our country free.”

This article originally appeared inThe New York Times. © 2024 The New York Times

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