UK Markets open in 4 hrs 57 mins

Poor Venezuelans crowd pro-Maduro stations in hope of vote 'prize'

Venezuelan citizens check in at a

Thomson Reuters

By Luc Cohen and Francisco Aguilar

CARACAS/BARINAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Poor Venezuelans scanned state-issued "fatherland cards" at red tents after voting on Sunday in hope of receiving a prize promised by President Nicolas Maduro, a practice opponents said was akin to vote-buying.

The leftist Maduro was expected to cruise to victory thanks to the heavy use of state resources, a ban on two of his most popular rivals, and a loyalist electoral council.

Maduro's critics said he was trying to drive up the turnout by frightening hungry Venezuelans into thinking that if they do not vote, they could lose out on food rations and money transfers they depend on as hyperinflation and shortages have millions living hand-to-mouth.

Those benefits often come via the fatherland cards.

A former bus driver, Maduro describes himself as Venezuela's "worker president" and says initiatives like the fatherland card show he is trying to protect the country's poor in the face of what he says is an "economic war" waged by right-wing rivals.

"This didn't exist before, but I do it now because of the help I get," said Jose Torres, 77, flashing an image of the late president, Hugo Chavez, that he keeps in his wallet after scanning his card at a "red point" in Lara state.

The opposition Democratic Unity coalition said the red points were stationed outside 80 percent of polling stations. Electoral Council President Tibisay Lucena had said the tents must be at least 200 m (655 feet) from polling stations and that Maduro had assured her no cards would be scanned.

But Reuters witnesses saw cards being scanned and several red points located much closer - with one inside the school where Maduro voted at dawn.

Henri Falcon, a former soldier and state governor who defied the boycott to challenge Maduro, said his team had registered 350 complaints about the red points.

"The buying of votes, toying with people's dignity, cannot continue," said Falcon after voting in Lara.

During the campaign, Maduro had promised that voters who showed their fatherland cards at the polls would receive a "really good prize."

It was not immediately clear what that was, but Falcon said he heard it was 10 million bolivars - a mere $13 at the black market rate, but about 10 times the monthly minimum wage.

Construction worker Josue Valecillos, 54, in Chavez's home state of Barinas said volunteers scanned his card on a phone and vowed a quick transfer. "They offered me 10 million bolivars," said Maduro supporter Valecillos.

Party volunteers pushed back at accusations of blackmail. Yasmina Rauseo, who was manning a red point in central Caracas, said the card-scanning was voluntary and primarily to help the party keep track of who was voting. But she said many of the 78 voters whose cards she scanned had asked about their "prize," and she did not know what to tell them.

"There is no official information," said teacher Rauseo, 64. "After they do their calculations and make their decisions, they will say if this corresponds to any benefit."


(Reporting by Luc Cohen in Caracas and Francisco Aguilar in Barinas, Venezuela; Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Barquisimetro, Venezuela, Andreina Aponte, Alexandra Ulmer and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Tibisay Romero in Valencia; Venezuela; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Peter Cooney)

See Also: