Venezuelans Prepare to Vote Amid Rising Violence

Venezuelans held a candlelight vigil to bring attention to the rise in violence in their homeland. (Photo by Alex Wolf/Voices of NY)

After two weeks of planning, and one Twitter and one Facebook account later, Una Luz Para Venezuela (“A light for Venezuela”) held a candlelight vigil in Times Square that drew about 50 Venezuelan expatriates.  The group’s purpose was to bring attention to the rise in violence in the South American nation and to honor those killed.

Attendees huddled around a huge Venezuelan flag and sung a mix of mournful and patriotic songs as they called for change, following the March death of President Hugo Chávez.

“All of us here have had cousins kidnapped and family members murdered, and now it’s time to change that,” said María Valentina Paris, 23, one of the group’s organizers.

The April 7 demonstration came at a critical time for Venezuelans.  On Sunday, citizens living in Venezuela, the U.S. and other countries will cast votes in a presidential snap election to succeed Chávez.

Voters will be choosing between Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, who is leading in the polls, and his more conservative challenger, Henrique Capriles. While concerned about the economy and job creation, Venezuelans of all stripes want a president who will lower the violent crime rate that spiked during Chávez’ 14-year reign.

Roberto González fled Venezuela’s growing violence in 1999. (Photo by Alex Wolf/Voices of NY)

“We hope that the government will be changed and no more Venezuelans [end up] getting killed in the streets just for nothing,” said Roberto González, 44, a New Yorker who said he left Venezuela in 1999 after his father and two brothers were murdered in Caracas.

At the close of 2012, the Venezuelan government logged a record number of murders. The socialist administration under interim president Maduro reported that 16,072 Venezuelans were murdered last year, representing a homicide rate of 56 people per every 100,000.

That figure, which actually falls below the one reported by the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a NGO that investigates Venezuelan crime data, would still be the largest rate ever recorded in that country.  The government’s figure also would peg the nation of 29.3 million as the second deadliest country in the world.

Both candidates have addressed the issue of violence in campaign rhetoric.  Maduro has called for an increase in social programs that promote cultural activities for youths.  He also has urged citizens to follow a disarmament plan put in place in 2012.

Capriles, meanwhile, has focused primarily on routing corruption from the country’s police forces and courts, a view Maduro shares.  Both candidates recognize violent crime as an important issue – a sign the problem transcends class and politics.

“This topic is so sensitive,” said Mariana Martín, a New York-based campaigner for Capriles.  “There’s more than 150,000 families whose lives have been changed over the last few years.”

Martín, 23, is working to mobilize Venezuelans living around New York to vote on Sunday.  Although she is technically in charge of delivering the campaign message, she said that the most important part of her job is getting the 4,000 locally registered voters to the polls.

“In this area it’s about 90 percent (Capriles supporters) to 10” percent Maduro backers, Martin said.

Joanna Greco, 39, is one opposition supporters planning to vote at the Venezuelan Consulate on East 51st Street Sunday.  At the Times Square vigil, she expressed her disappointment with the current administration’s ability to tackle soaring violence.

“Maduro is saying the same thing about violence for 14 years and he hasn’t done anything for our country,” she said.

The organizers of Una Luz Para Venezuela vowed to keep protesting no matter the outcome of the elections. (Photo by Alex Wolf/Voices of NY)

Despite apparently overwhelming support for Capriles in New York and other places outside of Venezuela, recent polls in Venezuela show him trailing by double-digit percentage points.  On Monday, Datanalisis, a Venezuelan polling organization, reported that Maduro was leading Capriles 49.2% to 38.4%, based on responses from citizens living in Caracas.

No matter who wins, Venezuelans like Natty Romera want a government that promotes peace and will put action to words. Romera, a New Yorker and an organizer for Una Luz Para Venezuela, vows to keep protesting violence.

“We want to raise our voice all together because this is not about a candidate, it’s not about a political race,” said Romera. “This is about our lives and the future of our country.”

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