'Freedom!' chants at Venezuelan opposition rallies ahead of election show depth of needs and fear

BARINAS, Venezuela (AP) — The chant is concise, but it could not be more meaningful for millions of Venezuelans in 2024: “Freedom!”

Members of the country's political opposition shout it with tears in their eyes, or red angry faces, or with hopeful ear-to-ear smiles. They shout it with Venezuelan flags in their hands or holding their children. They shout it sporting a soccer jersey or wearing a political party’s T-shirt.

The calls for “libertad" have been a staple of the opposition’s events ahead of the highly anticipated July 28 presidential election. With the official start of campaigns this week, they were deafening during a massive rally Saturday in the western Venezuelan state of Barinas, the home state of the late fiery President Hugo Chávez.

Students, state employees, retirees, agriculture workers and business owners were among the thousands gathered in support of Edmundo González Urrutia, the only candidate with a real chance of ending President Nicolás Maduro’s quest for a third term. Their chants, collectively, represent long-sought freedom from the 25-year rule of self-described socialist governments. Individually, people are seeking wide-ranging freedoms, including the freedom to post government criticisms on social media without fearing repercussions.

“I want economic freedom, freedom of purchasing power, freedom of a living wage,” Virginia Linares, 41, said with teary eyes. “We feel locked in, we feel like something is being taken away from us because a salary that is not decent is a salary that overshadows us as people, we do not achieve the things we want, our dreams.”

Public employees these days earn a monthly minimum wage of about $3.60 plus $130 in bonuses, while private-sector workers make on average $210 a month. Neither monthly pay is enough for a family to buy a basic basket of goods, which costs about $380.

Linares lost her beauty supply store in 2017 as a result of the social, economic and political crisis that has marked the entirety of Maduro’s 11-year presidency. Her business is now online only, and her concerns over the country’s economic conditions have increased now that her 17-year-old son has finished high school and is thinking about his future.

The July 28 election is shaping up to be the biggest challenge that Venezuela’s ruling party has faced since Chávez became president in 1999. The party wants to maintain its absolute control for six more years, but its base, including in Barinas, is divided and disenchanted over the crisis.

The state had long been a bastion of the late president’s movement, Chavismo. His brothers, Argenis Chávez and Adán Chávez, and father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, all served stints as governor from 1998 to 2021. The opposition ended the Chávezes reign and has since used that victory as motivation for its base.

Chávez, elected in 1998, promised to improve the lives of Venezuela’s poorest using the country’s oil. He expanded social services, including housing and education thanks to the country’s oil bonanza, which generated revenues estimated at some $981 billion between 1999 and 2011 as oil prices soared.

But corruption, a decline in oil production and economic policies led to a crisis that became evident in 2012. Before Chávez's death of cancer in 2013, he picked Maduro as his successor.

Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have fended off challenges by barring rivals from elections and painting them as out-of-touch elitists in league with foreign powers. This time, their government control led to a court ruling blocking the candidacy of opposition powerhouse Maria Corina Machado, who won the October primary of the Unitary Platform coalition with more than 90% of support.

She has thrown her support behind González, a former ambassador who’s never held public office. At opposition rallies, including Saturday’s, people say they will undoubtedly vote for González but also acknowledge that it is Machado who they see as leader.

Venezuela’s crisis has motivated more than 7.7 million people to migrate. When González asked the crowd to raise their hand if one of their relatives had migrated, people were quick to react. He promised them to create conditions so that their loved ones can return.

Miguel Herrera, a school handyman, is worried that his teenage daughters might end up migrating in a few years if Maduro is reelected. He thinks that just as Barinas ushered the opposition into the governor’s office, voters across the country can get González elected later this month.

His chants for freedom Saturday were for a change that would give his children the freedom to choose to stay in Venezuela. He also wants his rights to quality health care and other public services to be respected.

“I don’t want my daughters to go somewhere else, at all,” said Herrera, who voted for Maduro in the past two elections. “Politicians made promises and they didn’t deliver and people began to wake up until they opened their eyes. We need change.”