MEXICO CITY (AP) — Iglenda Monzón lost her restaurant to Venezuela’s protracted economic crisis. Her daughters then emigrated to Colombia to find work and left behind two children. She and the boys sometimes go hungry and often do not have running water, electricity or gas.
Theirs is a common tale across the troubled South American country, and like millions of others desperate for a change, Monzón voted in the country’s recent regional elections.
Her ballot contributed to a deeply symbolic opposition win in the heartland of the ruling socialist party. But just by casting a ballot, she stepped into the most divisive issue for parties seeking a new government — whether or not to take part in elections most see as deeply unfair.
The gubernatorial victory in the northwest state of Barinas — where the late President Hugo Chávez was born and his family governed for more than two decades — has been celebrated by the opposition.
Voters like Monzón who contributed to that win see ballots as a tool for the change they crave.
“(Change) is by vote, it is the decision of the people.... Those are our weapons: the vote. They are the only weapons that we, the opposition, have,” Monzón, 46, said.
But the victory hasn't convinced skeptics who doubt the value of participating in contests that most independent monitors still see as profoundly tilted in favor of President Nicolás Maduro's government.
Twice in less than two months, the opposition shocked the ruling socialist party by prevailing in Barinas. Sergio Garrido, a local leader unknown to most of the country, won a special election held on Jan. 9 after Venezuela’s highest court retroactively disqualified the opposition contender in November’s regular contest as he was leading in the vote count.
November's state and local elections were the first in years in which most major opposition parties participated. The outcome underscored the opposition's dilemma: The government finally accepted a loss in Barinas, but only after it had claimed victory in most other contests nationwide and only after it made things as hard as possible on its rivals.
Electoral authorities first let opposition candidate Freddy Superlano participate in Barinas, then the high court disqualified him just as it appeared he had won. His wife, who was chosen as his successor, was also ruled ineligible. So was her substitute. The previously obscure Garrido finally was allowed to stand.
The main opposition coalition, the “Unitary Platform” led by Juan Guaidó, boycotted previous elections, including the reelection of Maduro as president in May 2018, arguing that Venezuela lacks the conditions for free and just voting.
Government loyalists dominate the electoral authority and courts, which have frequently barred or prosecuted leaders challenging Maduro. And after the government lost control of congress in 2015, officials moved to create a new super-legislature to overrule it.
The opposition somewhat grudgingly agreed to take part in November after two opposition stalwarts were added to the five-member electoral authority.
But Guaidó — the former congressional leader who is recognized by the U.S., Britain and other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president — didn't encourage people to vote in November. While his party ran candidates, he did not cast a ballot.
After the win in Barinas, he told reporters that that outcome was a great lesson in organization and mobilization — but said the opposition still needs to demand negotiations on fairer electoral conditions and an end to political conflict.
“This is something simple: that the political persecution be put to an end, that the political prisoners be freed, that we achieve a schedule for free and fair elections, that we achieve the economic reactivation of the country," he said.
Former lawmaker María Corina Machado took a blunter stance against participating, saying those who did were “washing the face of" Maduro’s government.
“This is not an election, but a simulation that allocates slots with no real power," she tweeted on election day. "This fight requires delegitimizing and destabilizing the tyranny.”
Venezuela’s opposition has been divided over boycotts at least since 2005, when the main parties withdrew from congressional elections, arguing problems with the voting system and a biased electoral council.
The result was widely seen as a disaster for the opposition: a near-total victory for Chavez that gave him carte blanche to pass legislation.
International observers determined that vote was basically transparent. But electoral conditions have grown steadily more hostile since then: Independent and opposition media have been closed, opposition parties taken over and their leaders jailed or forced into exile.
“The problem is that electoral participation is the issue that most divides the opposition,” said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and professor at Tulane University.
“They decided to go to the 2021 regional elections, but making minimal effort to unify candidacies and actually seeking to discourage the vote,” he said.
Turnout on Nov. 21 was just 42%. Maduro's United Socialist Party of Venezuela won more than 200 of 322 municipalities and most governor’s offices even though its overall vote total, 3.7 million, trailed the 3.9 million of its adversaries.
Part of the poor opposition showing resulted from its inability to line up behind a single candidate, splitting support. That was the case in Miranda state, where incumbent Gov. Héctor Rodríguez was reelected after a bitter dispute among two opposition candidates.
Smilde said the opposition needs to find a way to "resolve conflict and forge a coherent strategy”
“It’s not realistic to think a diverse coalition will come to a consensus on ideology," he said. "But if they can agree on mechanisms to form an effective coalition, they will be successful, as Barinas just showed.”
While Guaidó and others say democracy will only return to Venezuela through a negotiated process with the government, such efforts have failed repeatedly, most recently in October, when the government halted discussions after a close ally of Maduro was extradited to the U.S. on money-laundering charges.
During the dialogue guided by Norwegian diplomats last year in Mexico City, both sides made concessions, but neither got close to their main objectives: an end to international sanctions for the government and much fairer electoral conditions for the opposition.
Conservative COPEI party leader Roberto Enriquez, an opposition delegate at the talks, said that Maduro’s government feeds off his adversaries’ “chaos” and warned against "predatory or annihilating behaviors among ourselves.”
“Key times are ahead. It is true that we have had many different visions and strategies, (but) those differences must be left behind,” he said.
The next presidential election is set for 2024, but some are pushing for an effort to oust Maduro sooner — and officials are not making that easy either.
Venezuela's constitution allows a referendum to remove a president who has served at least half his term. A few groups this month filed petitions to start the process and the electoral council on Friday set the rules: The groups must gather nearly 4.2 million signatures in just a 12-hour period on Saturday at only 1,200 points around the country.
In Barinas, the opposition united behind one candidate and won over people like Maria Bolivar, who is formally employed by a public hospital but long since stopped working as her $7 monthly wage was not enough to feed herself.
Bolivar, 62, said the rest of the country should take note of what happened:
“May this serve as an example for the rest of the country who have to fight.”