Every few weeks, Valentina and Francisco Rivero like visiting a joint in Santa Monica to breakfast on arepas — traditional Venezuelan corn patties filled with ham and cheese, black beans, or pulled pork.
Café Bolivar is a Venezuelan expat hangout owned by another Venezuelan immigrant, a friend of the Riveros who has lived in the States for more than 25 years. The Riveros have been here for 15. They’re a middle class couple in pursuit of financial stability and fulfilling careers. But they’re still very plugged in to events their native country — especially the presidential elections every six years.
“Even though you left your country, voting is the very least you can do, because you still have family members and friends back home," says Valentina, explaining her motivation to vote. "And even if you didn’t have them, it’s your duty. You have the right to, and you should want to contribute in that way.”
“I think it really depends on the hopes and plans you had before you migrated here," adds Francisco. "My thinking is, while I stay in the US to fulfill my personal dreams, I want Venezuela to be in the best shape, so I can return and continue my life there someday.”
On Sunday, the couple and their baby will drive six hours north to the nearest Venezuelan consulate, in San Francisco, so they can cast their votes. It’s a small price to pay, they say, to participate in this election.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who first came to power in 1998, faces his toughest challenge in 14 years. He’s established populist social reforms, won numerous referendums and rewritten the constitution so he could extend his rule. But observers say Chavez could lose his job this time to the only opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski.
The 58-year-old president has been omnipresent on state-sponsored TV and at political rallies until recently, when doctors diagnosed and treated him for cancer. Capriles Radonski is 40. He’s a pro-business lawyer with a charismatic style that isn’t too different from the incumbent’s.
To some Venezuelans in this country, Capriles Radonski represents the change they’ve desperately wanted for years.
“I’m a businessman, you know? I think the president and his current government have had the ideal conditions to bring about change; they’ve had more money than previous governments, too," says Antonio Gallardo. "And in the past 14 years, I think they’ve done a poor job managing those resources.”
Gallardo arrived in the United States nineteen years ago to earn a second master’s degree. He’s become a successful information technology and foundation executive. He says that despite Chavez’s popularity among working class Venezuelans, the president hasn’t delivered on his promises in two important ways.
“Poverty—there have been no real improvements on that front," he explains. "Chavez’s idea is that equality means we’re all poor, and I just don’t buy that. And high crime — I find it hard to believe that every time I go back to Venezuela, it gets much worse — I’m constantly fearing for my safety.”
Gallardo says he has high hopes for a possible Capriles Radonski win - so much so that he’ll vote from abroad for the first time since Chavez became president. Like the Riveros, Gallardo will drive to San Francisco this weekend, and will field regular updates about the election from his relatives in Venezuela.
“In the past five to ten years, I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, the way I could help Venezuela is by going into politics," he says. "I thought that maybe by running for some office, I’d be able to apply all the lessons I’ve learned and witnessed in my years in business and philanthropic work here. But I don’t see the chances of doing this under the current government.”
But not every eligible Venezuelan adult here will be able to vote. The deadline for absentee voter registration came and went last May without much notice to expats. Filmmaker Antonio Scarpetti missed his opportunity to register.
Scarpetti has lived in the United States for 23 years. On his last annual trip to Venezuela, he decided to produce a TV pilot about the lives and traditions of working-class and farming people, the kind who typically support Chavez. But in this series, he says, he’s chosen to minimize talk about politics.
“I think right now, people need to see these things, because it’s the pureness, it’s the root, the primitive side of us," he says, in describing the focus of his series. "And I think with all this craziness about elections and hating this side, or the other side—I say, we are these people: we all are—it doesn’t matter how much money you have in your pocket.”
Scarpetti says he hopes to return to Venezuela next year for more filming. Regardless of Sunday’s election results, his main concern is that the voting process in that country will be peaceful for Hugo Chavez supporters and opponents.