For most people, yesterday was a fairly average Sunday in July. Many in the UK were watching the Wimbledon Men’s Tennis Final, others were going to the gym, meeting friends, doing housework or preparing for the upcoming school holidays. Yet, for Venezuelans across the UK, indeed the world, yesterday was a momentous occasion – the first opportunity for them to have a voice about their nation’s democratic process in 10 years.
A few days ago I received an email inviting me to act as an independent observer for a polling station being set up by a group of Venezuelans based in Cambridge. This was not as random as it may appear, one of my closest friends is from Venezuela and was volunteering at the polling station. I was delighted to be asked, I have seen the news reports and heard of the atrocious conditions being imposed on ordinary, hard working Venezuelans by a government becoming increasingly controlling and dictatorial.
In the UK we are currently concerned about the lack of funding available for health and social care services, but in Venezuela people are unable to get access to vital medication, can no longer afford to maintain health insurance to pay for much needed health care, and, thanks to the restrictions on import, family members outside of Venezuela are struggling to send the medication from other countries where it is readily available.
My friend has told me of government imposed restrictions on access to simple goods that we take for granted, such as toilet paper and bottled water. People have taken to the streets in their thousands to protest against the regime, and so far 90 people have been killed by pro-government police or troops.
Currently the Venezuelan government is attempting to pass into the constitution a range of political and legal measures that would essentially see the end of democracy and give the party in power the right to remain in power without need for further election. Venezuelans in the UK report that their friends and family back home are being told by the government-run media that the government holds the mandate of the people, the majority of the population are in favour of their regime and the opposition parties are attempting to undermine their power.
The opposition parties decided to mobilise the populace, using the democratic process, by holding a referendum in order to demonstrate that the government’s claims are untrue.
If you thought the recent UK elections were a bit of a rush job, hats off to the Venezuelans who managed to organise their referendum, not just at home, but across the world, in the space of 3 weeks. Groups were formed, social media was buzzing with notices, emails were being sent out, texts sent, and rooms booked. Suddenly, polling stations equipped with ballot papers and ballot boxes, posters and refreshments were popping up all over the place. In the UK alone there were 17 such polling stations, all linking together on the day over the internet to share stories and numbers of voters.
By the time I arrived for my “shift” at midday, the place was buzzing with an air of excitement and anticipation. People had travelled, some with small children, for over 2 hours in order to be able to vote. Others who were on holiday or studying in Cambridge came to vote, and even volunteer to help once they arrived. A student film crew from one of the Universities had given up their Sunday to interview voters and volunteers in order to produce video evidence of this momentous occasion.
The Polling Station itself was a well organised machine with a heart pumping with vibrant Venezuelan passion and warmth. In order to ensure each voter knew what to do to exercise their democratic right, there was written information along with a set of verbal instructions from two of the volunteers explaining the process of voting in a completely impartial and straightforward way.
I was impressed by their patience, professionalism, and compassion for all those who had made the effort to turn up. Some voters arrived without the required identification, so permission was sought from the organising body for them to use alternative means of ID in order to participate. Others were moved to tears of gratitude, grief, even homesickness. Volunteers sat and provided comfort and sustenance, showing solidarity and the true meaning of community so far from home.
Once people had voted they stayed around, talking to others, the passionate sound of Spanish resounding in the air. Arrepas and other Venezuelan delicacies appeared and were generously offered around, some provided by the volunteers organising the event, but many more being donated by those coming to vote. This was not a party atmosphere, there was no music, no singing or dancing, and the only decorations were the yellow, blue and red of the Venezuelan flag.
People arrived wearing their country’s colours in whatever way they could. The national football team’s shirt, baseball caps, flags draped over shoulders, jewellery and even finger nails painted for the occasion. The national pride was evident, yet great care was being taken to not show any influence over the outcome of the vote.
What mattered most yesterday was democracy in action.
News went around at one point that so many Venezuelans had gathered in Vatican Square calling for support from the Pope that he appeared and addressed the crowd. Photographs posted online were being shown to people of the huge queues outside polling stations in Venezuela, and people posed in the polling station to show the ink mark on their thumb to prove they had voted. Others grouped together outside and held up their flags in celebration of the opportunity to have their say.
It did not matter that the government refuse to recognise this as a valid referendum. It was a symbol of a people determined to protect something they hold sacred – democracy. An act of defiance against dictatorship and a bullish regime. Sure, the outcome of the referendum is important, but more important to the people working tirelessly for it to take place, was upholding the principles of democracy. Ensuring that everyone, regardless of their opinions or persuasions, had the same rights as everyone else.
As an observer to ensure the proper process was followed, I was privileged to witness some of the 200+ people who came to vote at the Cambridge polling station. A peaceful and safe place.
Sadly, this was not the case everywhere. I read the news this morning of the tragic murder of a woman, a nurse in her 60s, who had been queuing up to vote in Venezuela, when a gang on motorbikes attacked her and left her for dead. The implication was to intimidate and deter others from voting. The suggestion being that it was sanctioned by pro-government supporters, in the name of a government that maintained it was not threatened by the referendum.
The woman’s death, along with the groundswell of support across the globe yesterday served to show that democracy is not dead and, with patience and determination, the people will decide!
If you wish to know more about the current situation in Venezuela please visit http://todayvenezuela.com
If you would like to support to the relief operation in Venezuela please visit http://www.charity-charities.org/HungerPoverty/Venezuela.html or http://www.chamos.org.uk