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In Venezuela, the Maduro regime is making it difficult for many people to vote


Nearly 8 million Venezuelans have fled their country to escape a devastating economic crisis. Many are fierce critics of Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's authoritarian leader, and they'd like to vote him out of office in this summer's presidential election. But, as John Otis reports, they may not get the chance.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Here at the Venezuelan consulate in Bogota, the Colombian capital, Venezuelan migrants are trying to register to vote. Among them is 29-year-old Genesis Rodriguez.

GENESIS RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: She left Venezuela for neighboring Colombia five years ago to escape food shortages and hyperinflation. She blames Nicolas Maduro, who has ruled Venezuela for the past 11 years, and she would like to give him the boot in the July 28 presidential election.

G RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: This time, the election will bring about change, she says. Instead, the election is shaping up to be a farce. Polls show that opposition leader Maria Corina Machado would crush Maduro in a free election. But Maduro's regime has banned Machado from appearing on the ballot, and it's unclear who will take her place. Meanwhile, migrants, most of whom support the opposition, must wade through mountains of red tape to get on the list of registered voters. So says Cesar Gonzalez, a Venezuelan lawyer who comes here to the consulate every day to help migrants register for support.

CESAR GONZALEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Although it's not required under Venezuelan law, Gonzalez says the Maduro regime is demanding that migrants hold valid passports in order to vote. However, a Venezuelan passport costs more than $300, and few migrants can afford them. They must also hold residency visas in the countries where they have resettled, but securing residency can take years. So although Bogota is a magnet for Venezuelan migrants, Gonzalez says that, since the process began last month, only 70 have been able to register to vote.

CRISTINA NUNEZ: It's incredibly sad and frustrating that they've managed to actually silence this entire chunk of the population.

OTIS: That's Cristina Nunez, a Venezuelan attorney based in Miami. She says there were roadblocks to voting in every country, including the U.S. Because Washington does not recognize the Maduro regime, Venezuelan consulates are closed. As a result, there's no way migrants can vote inside the U.S. To cast her ballot, Nunez must fly to Venezuela.

NUNEZ: So it's an incredibly expensive endeavor that makes it almost impossible for any Venezuelan living in the U.S. to go vote back home.

OTIS: There are nearly 5.5 million voting-age Venezuelans spread around the world, but just 2% have been able to register to vote.


JORGE RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: At a news conference in Caracas, Maduro spokesman Jorge Rodriguez insisted that the government has never, ever denied the right of Venezuelan exiles to vote. But back at the Venezuelan consulate in Bogota, most migrants say they are being turned away.

G RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Among them is Genesis Rodriguez, the 29-year-old who's here with her mother and grandmother. They were blocked because they lack Venezuelan passports. Three passports would set them back more than $900.

G RODRIGUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: So she's saying now there's three fewer votes for the opposition because they were just rejected here at the consulate.

There's not much time to fix these problems. Voter registration for Venezuela's presidential election ends on Tuesday.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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