Venezuela: Is Chavez Forcing People to Attend His Rallies?

Manuel Rueda

CARACAS -- Salsa music blared into our eardrums as we emerged from the Bellas Artes Metro station in Caracas on Thursday. It was 12:30pm, and three hours remained until President Chávez would speak to his followers at his last rally before this Sunday's presidential vote.

But the rally had already been in full swing for a few hours, with live salsa and pop bands playing in dozen of stages set up along Caracas' Bolívar Avenue, and on a street that runs parallel to it called Avenida Mexico.

The event felt more like a music festival than a political rally. There was a stage on every other block. Beer was sold on every corner and some activists carried lunch packages that had been handed to them for free.

"We love Chávez," said Renny Escorche, who arrived at the rally at 9am. "He is the only president, [of Venezuela] who has untapped oil [wealth] for the benefit of the people."

Chávez has thousands, maybe even millions of devout followers like Escorche, who said that if Chávez lost these elections, all the gains that Venezuela's poor have made over the past 10 years would be lost.

But with rising violence rates and electricity shortages plaguing the country, and opposition candidate Henrique Capriles summoning massive crowds wherever he goes, one big question observers of this election are asking is whether support for Chávez is as big as it looks like in this aerial shot from Thursday's rally.

Would it be possible for example that a significant portion of the people who attended Thursday's rally were forced to go there by their employers? Could they have been bused into Caracas from far away cities, to give media the impression that Chávez has a greater following than the opposition candidate, who also packed Bolívar Avenue last Sunday?

As we made our way down Bolívar Avenue and shot video of the party that thrived before our eyes, Univision reporter Elyangelica Gonzalez, ran into a man whom she had worked with years before.

He told us he had been working at one of Venezuela's state-owned telecommunications companies for the past four years. And that he was fed up of being forced to attend rallies like this one by his bosses at that company.

"Although this rally might seem monolithic, it is in fact segmented into smaller rallies," said this government worker, who did not want his name to be published for fear of losing his job.

"Everyone must go to a specific stage, and there they have people who check if you have attended [the Chávez] rally," our source claimed.

The man added that officials at his company kept lists of those who attended Chávez rallies, and that some of his friends had previously gotten fired from jobs at government agencies for not attending such events.

He said that on Thursday, only three out of 40 people in his department were allowed to stay in the office because their health condition did not allow them to brave the crowds on Bolívar Avenue.

The Venezuelan government denies that it is forcing anyone to attend political events. But the practice of herding government workers to Chávez rallies has been widely documented by media networks that sympathize with Venezuela's opposition.

In the hours leading up to Thursday's rally for example, TV channel Globovision showed images of people in red shirts streaming out of several government offices in Caracas, including the headquarters of national oil company PDVSA.

Photos of letters in which high-level government officials tell their employees to go to Chávez rallies circulate on Facebook and Twitter.

On Thursday, Univision correspondent Elyangelica Gonzalez also received this picture from a source who works in the Ministry of Finance. It's a kit of Chávez gear that was allegedly handed out to ministry employees to wear at Thursday's rally.

It was easy during Thursday's rally to bump into all sorts of public employees. We spoke to folks from the Ministry of Health, from the Ministry of Commerce and from social initiatives like the Mercal supermarket program.

All of them –save for the man from the telecoms company- said they had come to the rally because they genuinely supported Chávez. But some admitted that they had been bused in for free, from cities that are far from Caracas.

Miguel Angel González came from San Fernando de Apure, a town that is 243 miles away from Caracas, on a bus hired by Misión Ribas, a government-run social program.

"Lots of people had to stay back in San Fernando because there were no more buses left," González said. "They were upset they couldn't come," he claimed.

Freddy Planchard, a worker at a government-run foundation, came to Caracas from Puerto La Cruz, a town that is a five-hour drive away from the country's capital.

He said he came in along with dozens of people from his town in a bus paid for by the national oil company PDVSA. But Planchard saw no conflict in a government agency funding his trip to a political rally.

"PDVSA belongs to the people now, and it is doing the community's work, as it is supposed to," Planchard said.

Chávez held a great party on Thursday. The size of the rally, which flooded four avenues in downtown Caracas, showed that the Venezuelan president's campaign is able to mobilize large numbers of people, even if it is using state funds to do so.

But how many of the president's supporters are genuine, and how many are just pretending to be Chávez followers in order to avoid negative repercussions at work or in their neighborhoods?

Is it also possible that there are large numbers of voters who say they are undecided, but who actually support Capriles, as a recent article by El Nuevo Herald, suggests. Sunday's vote will provide an answer to these questions.

(Photos by Manuel Rueda.)

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