CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Ebullient Venezuelans on Sunday chose the candidate they think can end the decade-long, crisis-ridden presidency of Nicolás Maduro, lining up under a scorching sun and torrential rain to cast ballots in a primary election that the opposition independently organized despite government repression.
That was a feat onto itself. But voters had not learned any results hours after polls started closing because of yet another internet-censorship obstacle thrown at the opposition’s effort.
“Once we began the process of counting the results … we detected that our server that functioned as a transmission channel was blocked, which prevents us from completing this process as scheduled,” said Jesús María Casal, head of the organizing National Primary Commission. He added the commission had already set in motion contingency plans to continue the vote count.
Holding Venezuela’s first presidential primary since 2012 required the deeply fractured opposition to work together. Venezuelans, in turn, showed up at voting centers in and outside of their homeland to make it count, enthusiastically lining up for hours despite scorching sun and torrential rain.
Still, what they saw as a monumental exercise in democracy could still prove futile, if Maduro’s government wishes.
While the administration agreed in principle to let the opposition choose its candidate for the 2024 presidential election, it also has already barred primary frontrunner María Corina Machado from running for office. Maduro’s government has in the past bent the law, retaliated against opponents and breached agreements as it sees fit.
Hundreds of people gathered at voting centers in neighborhoods across the capital, Caracas, even before polls were scheduled to open. They stayed in line despite a rainstorm that left them soaking wet. They carried umbrellas, folding stools and coffee to ease the expected waits, and leaned against buildings or stood under marquees to try to avoid the rain.
Caracas resident Stephanie Aguilar, 34, cried while she waited to vote. She described the primary as the only “salvation” for her country, her daughter and son, and the millions of Venezuelans who decided they had to emigrate due to the nation’s economic and political turmoil.
“We want a better country, a free country, for my children … who have grown up in this government,” Aguilar, a housewife, said as she wiped tears from her face. “They ask, ‘Mom, can we go out to eat?’ No, there is no money. ‘Mom, can we do this thing?’ No, there is no money. It is unfortunate that a society grows up under those conditions.”
People showed up to vote despite widespread confusion over polling sites and repeated disappointments from an opposition that has long struggled to work in synergy.
Venezuelans typically vote at public schools. But the independent commission that oversaw the primary opted to use homes, churches, private schools and other facilities as voting stations after the country’s electoral authorities did not respond to requests for help in a timely manner.
The organizers created a website meant to allow voters to search for their polling site, but it was blocked by internet service providers within Venezuela. Some who managed to circumvent internet censorship with a VPN found their center had been relocated, in some cases due to intimidation by government allies.
The London-based internet monitoring firm NetBlocks on Sunday tweeted metrics showing “a disruption to internet connectivity in #Venezuela with high impact to Caracas.” It added that a state-owned internet service provider claimed “an issue with its energy backup system.”
David Smilde, an expert on Venezuelan politics at Tulane University, said the primary is a “significant achievement” for several reasons, including forcing political leaders and parties within the opposition “to reach out and speak to the people.”
“And it has generated considerable enthusiasm and mobilization in a population that has been skeptical of the opposition leadership of late,” he said.
Machado, a former lawmaker who supports free-market policies, is a longtime critic of the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela. She maintained a somewhat low profile for years but dominated the primary campaign by connecting with the same voters she consistently urged to boycott previous elections.
The presidential election is expected to be scheduled for the second half of 2024. Maduro is looking to extend his presidency until 2030, which would surpass the time that Hugo Chávez, his mentor, governed and established his self-described socialist policies.
“I don’t know about you, but I feel like this is a miracle,” Machado said before voting at a center in a middle-class neighborhood in Caracas. “This is an act of defiance of a system.”
Maduro’s allies ridiculed and dismissed the primary all year. Still, both the government and its opponents used the contest as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from each other as part of a negotiation process meant to end the country’s complex social, economic and political crisis.
Maduro and an opposition faction backed by the U.S. government on Tuesday agreed to work together on basic conditions for the presidential contest. That prompted the government to release six political prisoners and the Biden administration to lift key economic sanctions.
As part of the agreement, Maduro’s administration and the opposition are supposed to “recognize and respect the right of each political actor to select” a presidential candidate freely.
If Machado wins, the focus will shift to Maduro to see if the government reverses its ban on her seeking public office. In June, the government issued an administrative decision prohibiting Machado from running, alleging fraud and tax violations and accusing her of seeking the economic sanctions the U.S. imposed on Venezuela in the last decade.
The U.S., holding up the threat of renewed sanctions, has given Venezuela until the end of November to establish a process for reinstating all candidates expeditiously.
A U.N.-backed panel investigating human rights abuses in Venezuela said last month that Maduro’s government has intensified efforts to curtail democratic freedoms ahead of the 2024 election. That includes subjecting some politicians and other opponents to detention, surveillance, threats, defamatory campaigns and arbitrary criminal proceedings.
All registered voters in Venezuela were allowed to participate in the primary, as well as tens of thousands living in several other countries.
“This is unprecedented,” said a smiling María de los Ángeles León, 31, the coordinator of Mexico City’s voting site. “People know that we have no guarantees that the winner of this election will be able to advance to the presidential election, but we keep trying.”
Associated Press writer María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.