Home News A new challenge for Venezuela’s dictator: ‘Freedom pie’

A new challenge for Venezuela’s dictator: ‘Freedom pie’

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A car recently pulled up outside a modest restaurant in the vast savannah of Guarico state, Venezuela. The driver shouted from behind the wheel: “Are you the restaurant that the government closed? I want to take a picture with you!”

The man jumped out of the car and approached one of the restaurant’s owners, Corina Hernández, 44. He took a selfie. “We are all angry,” he told her.

As Venezuela prepares for its most hotly contested election in years, Corinna and her sister, Elise Hernández, have become unexpected political folk heroes.

Their crime? Selling 14 breakfasts and a handful of pies to the country’s leading opposition figure. A few hours later, the government responded – ordering the sisters to temporarily shut down their business.

Their case is Share widely Online, they became symbols of defiance among Venezuelans fed up with their country’s authoritarian leaders. (The sisters have since received a slew of Online attention outside of Venezuela and renamed its product “Liberty Pie.”)

But their business is just one of a few that have felt the government’s heavy-handed tactics after providing daily services to Maria Corina Machado, a main political opponent of President Nicolás Maduro.

Machado, a former legislator and longtime Maduro critic, hasn’t even run yet, but she is using her popularity to campaign with and on behalf of the leading opposition presidential candidate.

Everywhere she goes on the campaign trail, those who help her are harassed by the authorities. In recent weeks, those targeted have included six sound equipment operators working at rallies, a truck driver collecting supplies at a campaign event in Caracas and four canoe drivers providing transportation in impoverished outposts in Venezuela.

Some were detained for hours and hauled off to a notorious detention center called “Spiral Island,” they said in interviews. Others had their equipment confiscated, their businesses shut down, and lost their livelihoods.

“We had nothing to eat during those days,” recalled Francisco Ecceso, a truck driver whose vehicle was impounded by police for 47 days.

For opposition figures and analysts concerned about the country’s erosion of democracy in recent years, such petty persecutions are a clear sign that the government is seeking new ways to silence opposition and flex its power.

Whatever the motivation, the vote scheduled for July 28 is widely seen as a Biggest election challenge Mr Maduro has been in power for 11 years.

For the first time in years, the opposition has united around a single figure with broad voter support, Ms. Machado. When the Maduro government barred her from running, her coalition managed to find a surrogate on the ballot, a soft-spoken former diplomat named Edmundo González.

Polls show Most Venezuelans plan to vote for González, frustrated by widespread hunger, poverty and soaring immigration numbers that are separating families.

The Hernandez sisters run their own restaurant, Pancho Grill, in the small town of Corosopando, five hours south of Caracas, one of the poorest regions in Venezuela. Corina and Ilys run the restaurant with their aunt Nazarez, one of five siblings, four sisters and one brother.

Here, since the economic crisis that began around 2015, people who once had decent jobs now make a living by scavenging for scrap to sell for money, while mothers have taken to hunting piglet-like báquiros and local rodents called picures to feed their children.

The Hernández family has run Pancho Grill for 20 years, selling a breakfast of pulled beef, eggs, beans and tortillas, known as arepas, to those who can afford it.

One of Venezuela’s staple foods, empanadas are fried crispy, served piping hot, stuffed with cheese, beef or chicken and served with a generous helping of aguidulce salsa (made with the country’s favourite red pepper).

Their workplace bears the marks of the recession: The kitchen is covered in rust because of leaky ceilings, the refrigerator doesn’t work, and prolonged power outages mean the Hernandez women often work in the dark.

In late May, between campaign events, Machado and her team stopped by Pancho Grill to buy breakfast and take photos with the Hernandez family.

But no sooner had the opposition leaders left than the sisters received new visitors: two tax inspectors and a member of the National Guard, who said they would temporarily shut down the business.

Officials told them that the sisters had problems with not keeping accounts and not reporting their income.

The sisters did not dispute the charges. But they said they had never been inspected by the tax agency in the two decades they had been operating. And, in an area where such violations are common, no one else in town was inspected that day.

The Hernandez family was told the restaurant would be closed for 15 days.

Representatives for the tax agency did not respond to an email seeking comment.

At first, the Hernandez sisters were upset. But they filmed their interaction with the supervisor and sent it to one of their daughters. The young woman decided she might as well share her family’s experience with a few friends.

video Rapidly spread onlineSoon, angry supporters were arriving like pilgrims. Donations appeared at the door: spices for empanada fillings, a 33-pound bag of cornmeal. Then contributions began pouring in from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, and even as far away as Germany.

Many people submitted orders for the pies, with instructions for the family to distribute them to those in need in the area.

Ms. Machado might have been sent to them by God himself, Corina Hernandez mused recently in her restaurant. The government’s retaliation had paradoxically been a blessing.

“Our lives changed when Maria Collina came to buy us pies,” she said. “Everything became better.”

The sisters reopened the restaurant 15 days after the closure, they said, and paid the $350 fine with the help of new supporters. Ms. Hernandez said she had not voted since 2006, when she voted for Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, who was handpicked by Mr. Chávez to succeed him as president.

But now, she said, the fine from the tax authorities had made her determined that she must appear in court on July 28, this time to vote for the opposition party.

Although the Hernandez family has since resumed business, not everyone who has run afoul of the government has been so lucky.

One of the men said in an interview that the six sound engineers, who were detained for hours, feared they would be locked up for years. In Zulia state, on the western edge of the country, hotels that once hosted Machado’s group now have “closed” signs.

Employees at one of the restaurants said the restaurant was forced to cancel First Communion celebrations scheduled for two of its restaurants, causing heavy losses.

In Apure state, five hours south of Pancho Grier, a wooden boat confiscated by authorities lies upside down on a beach next to a National Guard command post.

Machado arrived in the town of Puerto Paes, in the province of Apure, a few days ago. Local organizers walked the streets with megaphones announcing her presence, and townspeople attached yellow balloons to a truck that she then used to address voters. The streets were packed with people.

The next day, four boatmen with motorized canoes agreed to transport Ms. Machado and her group to the next campaign stop. The boats were confiscated soon after, and the National Guard later visited the home of one of the boatmen, according to interviews with three of the boatmen. There, two National Guardsmen told the wife of one of the boatmen that they were there on “the orders of the bosses in Caracas” and were trying to arrest her husband.

He wasn’t home because he was hiding. Now the boatmen moved from house to house, sleeping in a different place every night.

National Guard representatives did not respond to an email requesting comment.

But the wife, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of further retaliation, said her husband made the right decision to send Ms. Machado home. “I have no regrets,” she said.

“I trust in God that she will win,” she said of Machado, whom many voters see as the real political force behind Gonzalez. “And everything will change.”



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