CARACAS/PUNTO FIJO, Venezuela (Reuters) - Some are travelling across town to cast their ballot. One has asked a cousin volunteering at a poll station to let him jump the queue. And another plans to dress up as a woman to vote.
Venezuela’s state workers are cooking up creative ways to participate in Sunday’s opposition plebiscite without being spotted by colleagues or Socialist Party members, which could compromise their jobs in Venezuela’s vengeful political climate.
The opposition is holding an unofficial vote to let Venezuelans have their say about unpopular President Nicolas Maduro’s plan to elect a new legislative body with powers to rewrite the constitution and supersede other institutions.
They say Maduro is seeking to consolidate a dictatorship in the oil-rich nation and must be stopped before critical food and medicine shortages worsen.
Maduro, however, says his July 30 vote for the controversial constituent assembly is the only way to bring peace to Venezuela after three months of violent anti-government protests.
He has ordered that the country’s roughly 2.8 million state employees, a sizeable part of the population of around 30 million, vote for the constituent assembly.
Many state workers remain fierce supporters of his “21st century socialism,” but others have turned on the government due to salaries that have plummeted to a few dozen U.S. dollars a month, corruption scandals and inefficiencies in state-owned companies.
Some workers stay on because of health insurance, subsidized food or lack of other opportunities in a country submerged in a fourth straight year of recession.
But about 20 workers interviewed by Reuters said discontent was growing, and many were planning to vote on Sunday.
“I supported the ‘revolution,’ but it’s over now, and what Maduro’s people are doing doesn’t work at all,” said a worker at state oil company PDVSA.
“So I‘m going to be active this Sunday. I‘m even offering my car to shuttle people around. Only people close to me, of course, because I don’t want to be seen.”
Their fear has historical roots.
In 2004, during the campaign for a referendum against late President Hugo Chavez, government lawmaker Luis Tascon published a list of more than 2.4 million Venezuelans who signed in favour of a referendum. Many lost jobs and were marginalized from state services and the “Tascon List” became notorious.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry and PDVSA [PDVSA.UL] did not respond to a request for comment.
The opposition, hoping to attract big numbers at the polls, has tried to make it easier for Venezuelans to vote in secret. Voters can cast their ballot from any polling station, and voting papers will be destroyed.
“We have to generate total trust so that dissident ‘Chavistas’ vote,” said opposition lawmaker Angel Alvarado, expressing optimism that they would. “The 1999 constitution (created under Chavez) unites ‘Chavismo’ as much as it does the opposition.”
Some angry state workers are organising themselves via secret groups on the Telegram messaging app, convincing reluctant family members to vote or feigning shopping trips and holidays to cast their ballots away from prying eyes.
Still, some efforts may be thwarted by the government’s decision to hold a practice of the July 30 constituent assembly vote on Sunday. Most of the workers interviewed said they were being required to attend the simulation - with one employee of aluminium smelter Venalum adding bosses were even offering overtime pay.
In the once thriving industrial heartland of Puerto Ordaz, where steel output has almost ground to a halt nine years after steelmaker Sidor was taken over by the government, union leaders expect a strong turnout for the opposition all the same.
“Out of 10 workers, nine support this plebiscite,” said union leader Leonel Grisett, who said he was fired a few weeks ago for coming out against Maduro’s plans to overhaul the constitution.
Still, many state workers are nervous about losing their source of income, however meager, in a country where many cannot afford to eat three times a day and falling ill can turn into a death sentence due to lack of medicines and deteriorating hospitals.
“I‘m 100 percent with the opposition, but voting on Sunday exposes me too much. I swear they’re going to get their hands on those ID numbers. It’s an unnecessary risk, especially because I‘m not voting in the constituent assembly,” said another PDVSA worker.
Additional reporting by Maria Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia Osterman