Venezuelan state worker becomes voice against voter coercion

Javier Hernandez knew he was going to be fired.

Everyone who worked with him in a state-run cement factory was told to vote last month in an election to choose delegates for a new constitutional assembly granting nearly unlimited powers to Venezuela's ruling socialist party. With the opposition boycotting the vote, virtually all the candidates were government supporters. A vote was tantamount to a show of support for President Nicolas Maduro and his allies.

Resentful of what he saw as a rigged process, Hernandez flouted his supervisors' order and didn't vote. Last Wednesday, he was taken outside the building and informed that he was fired.

Now he has become a rare public voice speaking out against a phenomenon that government critics say was widespread in last month's vote — Venezuelans were threatened with loss of their public benefits or state jobs if they didn't participate.

"It was not a surprising measure, because we had been warned," Hernandez said. "The people who did not go to vote were explicitly threatened. ... If we didn't go to vote on 30th of July, we would be fired."

Hernandez had worked as a production manager in the factory for five years. Thanks to inflation, his monthly salary had declined so much in value that it was worth only about $25 on the widely used black market exchange rate. So he started doing freelance work for international companies on the side — extra income that allowed him to make a choice that was out of reach for many others.

Hernandez's wife, Denitza Colmenarez, a 39-year-old public-school teacher, said she was not threatened for choosing not to vote. Hernandez, however, said he was one of 15 people who were fired from the factory in the Caracas suburb of Guatire for refusing to vote.

"'What are you guys going to do? Are you going to vote?' Believe it or not, but it was the biggest topic of discussion in many circles and many families," he said. "What should we do? Do we take the pragmatic approach to preserve our salary and our employment, or do we make a political decision?"

The government says more than 8 million people voted in the constitutional assembly election, although the political opposition and independent experts say turnout was less than half of that and there was widespread coercion and fraud. The government is Venezuela's largest employer, with nearly 3 million people working in a public post.

It's not the first time Maduro or his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, used state jobs and benefits to pressure Venezuelans to support them. Chavez famously retaliated against a group of Venezuelans who signed a 2003 petition asking for his removal. Those who signed it were barred from public employment and often cut off from social benefits. Maduro has similarly retaliated against state business managers who signed a similar petition last year.

Hernandez says such tactics reached a peak with last month's constitutional assembly vote.

"President Maduro and the government focused on public employees. ... They said they would make sure that all public employees would vote. For us it was like an alarm bell — it meant we didn't have an option," he said.

Officials at the housing ministry, which runs the cement factory where Hernandez worked, said no one was authorized to comment on the voter coercion allegations.

Hernandez is standing his ground until the end. When he wouldn't sign a resignation letter, the company withheld his last check. He has begun court proceedings to get it back.