Many Venezuelan voters see the coming presidential election that will replace the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez as a sharp choice between socialism and capitalism that will affect their lives in very real ways.
Business has not been good for Rotzen Villabon, who owns a gift shop called Viqiu. He needs dollars to import products made in China but he can’t find any at the official exchange rate of 6.5 bolivares per U.S. dollar. He says the supply is even limited on the black market at a much higher exchange rate.
“It has been really hard to find dollars, and we can find some at an exchange rate of 25 per dollar but not the amount that we want. So that is the reason that business is down,” said Villabon.
The strict controls on foreign currency are fueling the country’s soaring inflation and causing scarcity of needed items from food to beauty products.
Villabon said he will vote for Henrique Capriles, who has promised to open up the economy to foreign investment and make Venezuela more business friendly.
“I think if Capriles wins there will be change. Not overnight. We have to be clear, because the conditions are really complicated. We don’t have liquidity in this country and, whoever wins the election, it’s going to be a hard time,” he said.
For many supporters of interim President Nicolas Maduro, the election is about preserving social programs like free housing, education and health care put in place by Chávez, who died last month after a long battle with cancer.
Jose Antonio Silva and his brother just received free treatment at a local health clinic.
“And if Maduro, God willing, wins the election, this will continue because this is a project the president wanted for the poor people,” he said.
The candidates agree that Venezuela needs to curb double-digit inflation and both support social programs for the poor. But many voters see stark ideological differences in the candidates and President Maduro currently holds a significant lead over Capriles in the polls.
The election takes place this coming Sunday.
Elsewhere in the capital a group of students has gone on a hunger strike to protest what they say is an unfair election process.
About 25 university students have set up camp in downtown Caracas and have have vowed not to eat until the election. Tugomir Yepez says they are there to protest what they say is the ruling socialist party’s unfair advantages over the opposition Unity party in the campaign and election.
“To be triumphant, different parameters for the Unity candidate should exist and for this reason we are protesting and fighting for the enforcement of these just conditions,” Yepez said.
In recent polls, Maduro is leading Capriles by a significant margin.
But the students say the process is not fair because Maduro has unlimited access to state media while Capriles is limited to three minutes per day of paid campaign advertising. Venezuela also is not accepting election monitors from the Organization of American States.
President Maduro, like his predecessor Chávez, they say, also uses government resources and workers for campaign purposes.
They see officials at the national electoral council, who were selected by the Chavista-dominated National Assembly, as biased.
Some international election monitoring groups like the Carter Center have voiced concerns in the past about some of these issues such as unequal media access for candidates but have also praised the work of the national electoral council and have called the actual voting system in place free and fair.