Updated 9 months ago

Will the government stop Venezuelans for trying to oust Maduro?

After six and a half hours in line to register to vote in a recall referendum, Larry Figuera needed only a few seconds to rattle off the reasons he wants to help throw out his nation’s president.

“The lack of medicine. The shortage of food. The insecurity. [No] living wage for the people,” the 32-year-old truck driver said. “I prefer a six-to-seven-hour line to sign my name than a 15-to-16 hour line to buy Harina P.A.N.” — a brand of cornmeal — “and toothpaste.”

Such daily difficulties, amid the country’s worsening economic crisis, have fueled an outpouring of opposition to the socialist government and generated a movement to recall President Nicolás Maduro, who has led Venezuela since the death of Hugo Chávez three years ago. But despite the groundswell of public support, recall opponents say that securing a win will be an uphill battle because of the logistical hurdles that the Maduro administration has put in place to slow the process.

Venezuelans across the country lined up last week to verify their signatures for the recall, an early step in a process expected to take months. But many complained that the 300 registration locations that had been set up were insufficient for the crowds that turned out. Others noted that the sites closed at 4 p.m. despite long lines of people waiting, and that some were located far from residential areas.

“The government’s fighting for its life,” said David Smilde, a Caracas-based analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America. “It wants to do everything possible to postpone this recall referendum.”

The political opposition, which has controlled Venezuela’s National Assembly since last year and has pushed for Maduro’s ouster, says it has cleared the required threshold for a referendum — 1 percent of voters registering in each state. The next step gives the National Electoral Council until the end of July to audit those voters’ signatures and declare whether the referendum can proceed.

But that would trigger another hurdle: Recall supporters would then have just three days to collect signatures from at least 20 percent of registered voters — about 3.9 million people — to pave the way for a vote on whether Maduro should leave office early. Even if the opposition could mobilize that many voters — it has asked the National Electoral Council to open 14,000 voting centers for the next phase — the more important issue is how quickly all of this plays out. If the referendum isn’t held before January 10, the midpoint in Maduro’s six-year term, there will be no early election. Instead, the vice president would serve out the remainder of the term.

“The question is not who can win a referendum. Obviously the opposition would win a referendum,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datanalisis, a polling firm here. About three-quarters of Venezuelans want a change in government this year, he said, and they are willing to vote against Maduro in a recall. “The question is whether they have the ability to surf over the obstacles that the government, with their institutional control, uses to impede the referendum.”

Although Maduro has vowed that there will be no referendum this year, electoral authorities have denied that they want to delay the process. The rector of the National Electoral Council, Socorro Hernández, said in a statement at the end of the signature-validation phase that the undertaking had unfolded “with total normalcy across the whole country” and that the decision to close registration sites at 4 p.m. was a necessary part of the administrative process.

Despite the economic calamity engulfing Venezuela, which is experiencing the world’s highest inflation, a deep recession and what León called a “brutal loss of public support” for the government, the socialist movement Chávez launched some 17 years ago has not been vanquished. About a quarter of Venezuelans still approve of Maduro, a higher rating than some other South American leaders enjoy, including President Ollanta Humala in Peru, Brazil’s recently suspended Dilma Rousseff and President Juan Manuel Santos of neighboring Colombia.

In Caracas, pro-government crowds dressed in red frequently take to the streets, with blaring music, speeches and inflatable Chávez dolls, and pledge allegiance to the “revolution.”

“The radical sectors on the right, the opposition, want to have a coup,” said Angel Corao, 58, the manager of institutional relations at Farmapatria, a government-run pharmacy, who attended a rally last week. “We have taken to the street to guarantee that this coup doesn’t happen.”

Corao, who studied at Iowa State University, said he had confidence in Maduro’s ability to jump-start the economy, relying on a network of state-run companies, and to make it less reliant on the price of oil, which has plummeted over the past two years.

“If President Chávez were alive, he would be taking these same steps as President Maduro,” Corao said.

Another government supporter, Manuel Chavez, the secretary general of a marine oil workers union, blamed the current unrest on an “economic war” initiated by private enterprise.

“The businessmen hoard products, and they make them more expensive on the street, to produce chaos and unease among the people,” he said. “We have to be positive. We are going to get out of this crisis.”

But these rallies have drawn smaller crowds over the years, and Maduro commands far less public enthusiasm than Chávez did.

“I want everything to change in this country, especially when it comes to food,” said Carmen Rosales, 45, as she waited to give a copy of her fingerprints for the referendum last week. “We’re prisoners here. There’s no life anymore. I have a 3-year-old grandson, and I have to give him cream of rice mixed with milk because there is nothing else to feed him.”

Outside a National Electoral Council office in the Mariperez neighborhood of Caracas last Friday, a line of people trying to beat the 4 p.m. deadline to sign up for the referendum stretched several city blocks. Recall supporters waved flags and sang. Some toted photos of imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López, chanting, “We want change,” “This government is going to fall” and “Resign, Maduro!”

“The international community needs to know that Venezuelans are tired of socialism,” said Rafael Creazzola, 21, who had recently been fired from his job with a police agency for what he said was his lack of loyalty to the government. “When Nicolás Maduro . . . leaves this nation, we will have the chance to really consider, to assess, the amount of damage they have done to us, and we will be able to start repairing.”

When the electoral office closed its doors at 4, scores of people were left waiting outside, their names left off the list.

the Washington Post | Mariana Zuñiga