VANCOUVER—The line was 30 deep before 6 a.m. at the Venezuelan consulate in downtown Vancouver, the only location in western Canada for ex-pats to vote in their presidential election Sunday. By noon more than 600 Venezuelans had stood in the short hallway, marked the labyrinthine bingo-card-like ballot and dipped a pinky tip in a well of blue ink on a wooden stool. By mid-afternoon, hallways and staircases were littered with voters checking smart phones for exit poll data back home showing a tight race between Hugo Chávez and the strongest opponent he has faced during his 14-year presidency, a charismatic lawyer named Henrique Capriles.
Seated on the floor around a power outlet were three women who made the trip to Vancouver from Alberta, the so-called Texas of Canada. That oil-rich province welcomed perhaps 1,400 families of the diaspora Chávez ignited in 2002 when he began publically firing and blacklisting some 20,000 employees of the state-owned petroleum concern PDVSA for their political protest and strike. When the women are asked why they voted, one of them, Rosalbal Lozada, who works in project control for the energy construction company Jacobs, announced: “Because we have a dictator there! And we have to remove him!”
She paid $400 to fly from Calgary to Vancouver for the day, just to vote. So did her friend Yelitza Bitter, a fellow project controls expert working for the energy giant Suncor. Beside them was Noris Carrillo, who works in business and planning for the energy company Nexen. Her thousand-mile voyage from Fort McMurray, the remote boomtown at the heart of the oil sands, set her back about $1,000, she said. For all three women, and the other 600 or so Venezuelans who elections organizers estimated made the trip from Alberta, it was their second such journey this year; they all had to come to the consulate to register in the spring. Ostensibly this meant two epic round-trips each for the privilege to cast a single vote in an election that would require close to 8 million votes to win.
Like many Venezuelan ex-pats in Alberta, these women all had worked for PDVSA, had marched against Chávez and had been fired via mass media. “Every day, you would check to see if your name was in the paper,” Bitter said. The bulk firing “caused divorces, suicides. People didn’t know what to do.” She and her family coasted on savings for two years before emigrating. When she left Venezuela in the winter of 2004, she said, the temperature at home was 30 degrees Celsius. When she landed in Canada, it was minus-40. (Fahrenheit difference: 120 degrees.) Yet Canada, a nation of immigrants loosely tasked with extracting natural resources and shipping them abroad, made her feel at home.
Albertans made up a decidedly pro-Capriles contingent. Asked whether anyone had ever voted for Chávez (he first ran in 1998), they balked.
“Some people voted for him thinking he was somebody different,” Bitter said.
“He was different!” Lozada replied.
“Different in a bad way,” Bitter acknowledged.
The 2002-03 purge was a dark portent even for those who weren’t fired. Another voter at the consulate, Verónica Pacheco-Sanfuentes, a mediator between travel companies and airlines, said she and her husband decided to leave Venezuela after the PDVSA firings. “We seriously started looking elsewhere,” she said. “That was a turning point for us. We knew it was something we definitely didn’t want to be a part of.” They came to Vancouver, and this past spring helped collect signatures to designate this consulate a voting center. Pacheco-Sanfuentes went to the same law school as Capriles, a couple of years ahead of him; they share mutual friends. His campaign — more humble and straightforward than she’s used to seeing — inspired her. “I really lost completely my innocence in 2002,” she said. “This is the first time since that I have this little flame of hope in my inner self.”
As the votes were being counted at the consulate, people congregated at a nearby Hyatt and waited for results. At around 8 p.m. on the West Coast, word trickled in from Venezuela: Capriles lost handily. In the concourses, men crowded around cell phones that blared tinny Spanish-language news reports; in the hotel lounge, women wept openly. The incumbent carried Venezuela 54 percent to 44 percent. The totals in Vancouver showed a different slant. Of the 776 votes cast there, including those by consulate staffers, Chávez received 14 votes.
Among the more resigned Venezuelans was Lino Carrillo, Noris’ husband. The University of Oklahoma-trained chemical engineer learned of his firing from PDVSA when his family saw his name in the paper in the spring of 2003. He worked to support Chávez’ opposition in the 2004 recall attempt, watched that dream die, and soon after moved to Alberta when Suncor came to Venezuela to scoop up petrol talent. “Up until 2002, I was not political whatsoever,” he said. “The minute Chávez put generals in PDVSA, I said ‘forget about that.’”
Sunday, he said, marked the first time since 2004 that he felt a pang of hope quashed. If an energetic, aggressive candidate like Capriles couldn’t oust a president who for 14 years has overseen a national devolution into corruption, blackouts, water shortages, rampant murders and kidnappings, and flagrant mismanagement of petrodollars, Carrillo said, then “nothing” would change his homeland’s course. “The country is going down like a falling rock,” he said, adding: “In Venezuela, they call oil ‘the devil’s feces.’ The devil’s shit. When you get it, you’re cursed.”
Sam Eifling is an American journalist in Canada. On Twitter he’s @sameifling.