CARACAS / MADRID / LIMA (Reuters) – After long bus journeys across the continent, many Venezuelan migrants in South American capitals often travel thin and penniless. They blame President Nicolas Maduro for the economic crisis that forced them to flee.
Yet despite their anger, many in Venezuela's fast-growing diaspora are planning to move away from Keep away from Sunday's presidential election and say that it's a sham election aiming to legitimize another six years in power for Maduro's socialist government.
In dozens of interviews from Spain to the US, Venezuelans abroad said they were pessimistic that Maduro would accept defeat at the ballot box. The former union leader has been ruling the OPEC nation since 2013 with an increasingly authoritarian hand, crushing opposition protests and imprisoning opponents.
Some of those hoping to vote for Maduro's lesser known challenger, former state governor Henri Falcon, said they face more and more barriers to consulate registration, including a requirement that they prove their residence in their country of choice ,
The Venezuelan Ministry of Information, which handles media inquiries for the government, did not respond to a request for comment on polling conditions abroad.
Some adversaries and academics say that up to 4 million people – of a population of about 30 million – have fled Venezuela since Maduro's predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez won power two decades ago. The government rejects this as an exaggeration.
Despite their increasing numbers, Venezuelan emigres are unlikely to influence the election, which was boycotted by established opposition parties and condemned by Washington.
"I have not heard from anyone trying to sign up," said Garrinzon Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Venezuelan Union in Peru, who helps migrants.
Critics say Maduro has used state food allocations to influence the election of Venezuelans who live by word of mouth because of salary-destroying hyperinflation, forcing about 2.8 million state employees to vote for his government.
A compliant electoral council and a ban on the most prominent opposition politicians have further strengthened Maduro.
The Venezuelan Socialist Government says that a series of electoral victories since 1998 indicate that it is supported by the people. Officials say the boycott of the opposition is anti-democratic, blaming Maduro's rivals for voting because they would lose.
"HIGH TIME TO VOTE"
There is no official data on the number of Venezuelans who have emigrated since Chavez began a left-wing "revolution" two decades ago in the once-affluent nation.
According to the United Nations, nearly one million Venezuelans left between 2015 and 2017. Anecdotes seem to have accelerated the trend this year.
An earlier wave of emigration caused many professionals to flee their savings to Miami or Madrid.
But increasingly impoverished Venezuelans They flee by bus or on foot to neighboring Colombia and Brazil as well as to Argentina, Chile and Peru, where they often accept low-paid jobs as waiters, construction workers or drivers.
Reuters investigates: reut.rsGqZcNI
Ignacio Avalos, one of the directors of the Venezuelan Election Observatory, an independent local election observation group, estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of Venezuelans are enrolled abroad for election.
The authorities did not respond to questions about how many foreign voters are registered. The authorities said earlier this year that more than 100,000 Venezuelans were registered to vote abroad.
In a report released this month, the Observatory pointed to numerous obstacles preventing Venezuelans abroad from being elected, including short office hours in the consulates, long delays and arbitrary conditions that are not required by law.
"Undoubtedly, this is the hardest time to choose from overseas," Avalos said.
Maduro ordered the reopening of the Venezuelan Consulate in Miami in February, saying that he wanted to enable the local Venezuelan community to enroll in the election. Chavez had closed the consulate in 2012 shortly before his last presidential election.
The consulate did not respond to a request for information on whether it was reopened.
Two of the Venezuelan Reuters surveyed said they would have no trouble registering for the overseas election, even though they both had the process well before that election cycle.
In Madrid, several polled Venezuelans said that the electoral roll does not allow them to change their old addresses, and the appointments at the embassy are nearly impossible.
"Nobody goes in there, not even God," said Vanessa Pineda, the leader of a Venezuelan opposition group living in Spain.
The embassy did not respond to an e-mail request for information.
"THOUSANDS OF HURDLES"
Maduro often vilifies Venezuelans abroad and accuses them of being part of a "dirty" right-wing conspiracy that damages his mark "21st Century Socialism." He ridiculed emigrants for working in low-paid jobs.
"You do not know how many of them wash toilets in Miami, would you wash toilets in Miami, would you leave our beloved country?" Maduro said during a speech in central Lara last month.
"I would never go," he added.
A minority of Venezuelan opposition representatives believe it is a mistake not to fight Maduro at the ballot box as it will most likely bring him a new six-year term.
"This may be our last chance to stop the crisis that is driving more and more Venezuelans into exile," said 28-year-old lawyer Victor Sulbaran, who emigrated to the US state of Georgia in January.
Sulbaran, a longtime activist of opposition candidate Falcon, was determined to vote.
But when he traveled to the Venezuelan Consulate in New York in March, he was asked to file a utility bill proving he was living in the United States. He eventually produced one, but then it was said internal systems had failed.
It was only on his third attempt this month that consulate officials told him he was successfully registered – but he has not yet received any formal notification of a change of residence.
"You are creating thousands of hurdles so you can not change your residence," said Sulbaran, still unsure if he can vote for Falcon on Sunday. The Venezuelan Consulate in New York responded that "the requirements have always remained the same, and all those who are registered must exercise the right to vote."
A former engineer from the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA, who had asked not to be identified In order to avoid repercussions on his family, he said he missed the deadline for changing his contract voting center after he emigrated to Colombia last month.
But the former middle-level manager – who now works in a used-car and motorcycle shop – said he was not interested in the election.
During the recent elections in Venezuela, he received SMS messages and calls from the PDVSA that pressured him to vote for the government, a joint experience for state employees.
"The government has taken control of all institutions and controls the electoral council, so I do not think it makes any difference whether we vote or not," said the former manager, who now earns 28 times what he has to Home has made dollar terms.
"I'm cutting a new path for myself, starting from the bottom again to slowly climb up, and I want to leave Venezuela in the past."
Graphic – Party Polarity: tmsnrt.rs/2wSwu9k  Alexandra Ulmer's coverage in Caracas, Angus Berwick in Madrid and Mitra Taj in Lima, additional coverage by Leon Wietfeld of Caracas, Zachary Fagenson of Miami and Fabian Cambero of Santiago; Letter from Alexandra Ulmer; Arrangement by Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O & Brien