Venezuelans fear for their future after unpopular vote
Plans to leave take on greater urgency as airlines suspend service, foreign governments denounce election
As the unpopular vote for a new constituent assembly went ahead on Sunday, the state of urgency in Venezuela was undeniable. Months of violence have led up to this election, but the aftermath could be even worse, leaving young Venezuelans — especially those in the capital, Caracas — despairing and scrambling to make plans to leave the country.
Cheers to Sunday, the end of our damn country.- 27-year-old Venezuelan woman who asked not to be identified
The constituent assembly would usurp the powers of the top legislative body, the National Assembly, and gain virtually full control over the country, with the power to both rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions.
After the weekend's carnage and 25 people killed in the past four days, this week marks the bloodiest period since protests against the government began in April. Countrywide, the violence has now left more than 100 dead and thousands more injured or imprisoned.
President Nicolas Maduro has hinted at a crackdown on opponents after the controversial vote.
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Venezuelan opposition congressman and oncologist Dr. Jose Manuel Olivares told CBC News he fears government reprisals against opposition politicians like himself.
"Twelve of my colleagues have already had their passports stripped," he said, "and we don't know if they will just start arresting us after Sunday."
Two Venezuelans in their 20s, both of whom asked not to be identified, told CBC News their country has fallen so far, they barely recognize it.
"Never mind five years ago or even two years ago, even in December I couldn't imagine we would be at this point," said the young woman, 27. "Cheers to Sunday, the end of our damn country," she said.
The two say that out of a group of 12 friends in high school, only four remain in Caracas. The rest have already left the country, and the young man says he's working on the paperwork to emigrate to Argentina.
Their experience is not unique. Medical student and member of a group of volunteer paramedics, Carlos Sambrano told CBC News that half of his fellow students have left.
Many here say that those with the means have already gotten out or now have emergency plans to get out.
The ongoing violence is set against the backdrop of a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, including a period of hyperinflation that has wreaked havoc on the country's currency, bringing real wages crashing down. The average Venezuelan is now just earning around $15 US per month.
The website Venezuela Econ, which tracks the black market rate of the the bolivar, showed that the currency hit a new benchmark: 10,000 to $1 US — a 99.8 per cent drop since Maduro came to power in April 2013, when it was 24 bolivars to $1 US.
Reports of threats, intimidation
Sunday's election asked Venezuelans to choose 545 representatives from a list of over 6,000 candidates hand-picked by Maduro.
Critics say the vote is a power grab by the president, whose approval rating hovers around 20 per cent. Latin American leaders issued statements saying they would not recognize the vote, and the U.S. warned it would take action against Maduro's government.
They have good reason to doubt the legitimacy of the election. Earlier in the week, Maduro urged government workers and employees at state-run companies to vote. In a televised address on Saturday, the president said the government would be cross-checking lists of voters with lists of government employees. He said whoever didn't vote would be fired.
Some employees at state-run companies anonymously reported to media outlets that their superiors were intimidating them into voting.
Susana Raffalli, a Venezuelan native and head of the Catholic charity Caritas, tweeted a picture of a sign in Caracas that urged people to vote in Sunday's election to get their food ration cards activated.
Raffalli told CBC News the government limiting access to the UN-sponsored Carnet de la Patria social program is a "violation of the state's obligation to the right of food without discrimination, and a fraud in regards to the original purpose of the program," said Raffalli.
Plans to get out of the country took on greater urgency after the U.S. Embassy in Caracas issued a travel warning last week and said embassy employees and their families could leave the country.
The move came as two more airlines pulled out of the country.
Air France and Iberia announced they would cancel flights to Caracas during the weekend to avoid the chaos of the election.
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Last week, Colombian airline Avianca halted service to Caracas after 60 years of continuous flight service, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and looking for options to get out. Ticket prices spiked, with some one-way flights to Bogota reaching as high as $2,500 US.
Delta Airlines quickly followed suit.
Some people said they were looking at bus routes to the border with Colombia.
However, the government has its supporters.
In the impoverished slum of Antimano, in Caracas's west side, Jean Carlos Nieves, 34, a community leader, told CBC News that reports of economic problems, violence and starvation were overblown.
"It's not the government instigating the problems but rather the opposition," said Nieves.
He said that Venezuelans from the wealthier areas of Caracas, who support the opposition, simply live in a different world and can't understand the problems faced in the city's many slums.
The words are a common refrain heard from Maduro loyalists, who see the economic crisis in the country as a U.S. plot against Venezuela. In a televised address Saturday, Maduro said the governments of Colombia, Mexico and Panama, who will not recognize his constituent assembly vote, are slaves of U.S. President Donald Trump.