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World

Venezuela's President Revs Up Effort To Pass New Constitution

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, wants to rewrite his country's constitution. It's a move that, of course, could give his socialist government even more power. Millions of Venezuelans voiced their opposition to this in a vote last weekend. That vote was symbolic, but unofficial. The government is forging ahead with an official election. It's for delegates who would rewrite the constitution as part of a constituent assembly. John Otis reports.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: In a Caracas slum, volunteers go door to door asking questions for a government census.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Besides collecting the usual data, they tell people that the Maduro government is ready to provide them with beds, refrigerators and home repairs.

MARBELY MORLES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Marbely Morles, a mother of three, tells them that rainwater constantly leaks into her wooden tarpaper shack and that she needs a whole new house. Not to worry, she's advised, someone from the government will be calling soon. There's just one catch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Marbely. (Speaking Spanish).

MORLES: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Marbely," says one of the census takers, "you need to support the constituent assembly - you hear me?" As the election approaches, the Maduro administration is reaching out to poor families, promising everything from food to jobs. In exchange, it insists that they show up to vote for the 540 delegates who will form the constituent assembly. The get out the vote effort includes upbeat spots that saturate state-run TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: But opposition politicians are boycotting the election and urging voters to stay home. They claim the assembly will be a rubber stamp for Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party. They predict it will postpone next year's presidential election, close congress and turn Venezuela into a dictatorship. To avoid an embarrassingly low turnout, the Maduro government is focusing on poor neighborhoods that depend on government welfare.

BENJAMIN SCHARIFKER: Social programs, instead of being social programs, are really a blackmail to the people in need.

OTIS: That's Benjamin Scharifker, dean of the Metropolitan University in Caracas. He says such bullying often works due to concerns over the secrecy of the ballot.

SCHARIFKER: The government has campaigns practically convincing people that the vote is not really so secret, that they know what is your choice, you know, when you vote.

OTIS: The message that Big Brother is watching even permeates emergency food programs.

At this food distribution center, Venezuelans are allowed, once a month, to buy beans, rice and other staples at subsidized prices. It's a vital program due to chronic food shortages.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The official in charge takes down every shopper's ID number and urges them to vote. But it's unclear if these tactics will keep voters in line. Even in the Caracas slums, long a bedrock of government support, people are turning against Maduro. A few blocks from the food center, I meet Ronald Cadiz, who lays asphalt for a government road building crew.

RONALD CADIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Cadiz says he and fellow employees have been told that if they don't vote for the constituent assembly, they will be fired. So what does Cadiz plan to do?

CADIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I'm going to vote," he says, "but I'm going to spoil my ballot because I don't like this government." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas, Venezuela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.