The clock read 2:08 p.m. and there was a steady, pattering rain hitting the plastic, tent-like roof that stood above El Arepazo’s outdoor seating section. A group of men, all around their late fifties by the look of their weathered faces and worn out tank tops or an errant guayabera (1), sat around the table and volleyed “panas” and “chamos” (2) around in an attempt to wait out the Florida rain that came and went as quickly as the smoldering flame of their cigarettes. At any given time, there were people outside of El Arepazo. When the sun was out and the humidity hung heavy in the air, the men lingered and leaned back in the metal chairs set out in front of the restaurant, picking at their “cachapas” or throwing back their fourth cup of “café — marroncito, por favor.” Their eyes wandered, hanging on this pair of legs stopping in for a “cachito” or that pair of arms balancing two trays of “arepas” for some community gathering. When no person beautiful or interesting enough for them happened by, their eyes settled, unfocused, on some point in the distance that lay between their lives in Doral and their memories in Caracas. When it rained, they shuffled under cover and waited for it to end, maybe pulling out a pack of cards or set of dominoes or, if one man felt particularly ready to have a little “bonche” (3) right there, a six pack of beer.
The languid lingering of the men outside transformed into a watering hole when you entered the restaurant, strangely contained by the two glass doors yet exuberantly active at most times of the morning and afternoon. Right now, however, at 2:08 p.m., the restaurant’s interior resembled its exterior a bit more than usual. A few customers sat scattered throughout, nursing coffees in little cups or indulging in a late lunch of “pabellon criollo.” The usual din was absent and the silence seeped into everything so even the “empanadas” resting in their glass cases looked deflated, like the cheese inside of them had hardened despite the stubborn heat and their puffed layers sagged with only empty air to support them. At all hours of the day, the six televisions mounted on the walls were on, usually playing some soccer or baseball game. On days like this, however, there were no men in jerseys to be seen. Instead, a newscaster with glasses on was talking to the camera, voice straining above the roar of the crowds behind her. The newscaster, who seemed like six different people as I sat in the middle of the crowd of tables and let myself be surrounded by the screens, was cutting in and out as she talked to the cameraman. She turned to the man next to her and thrust the microphone forward so he could speak. Together, the two of them were a sharp blur of red, yellow, and blue, no part of their body not covered in one of the three, if not all at once with a set of stars scattered on top. A flag with the same colors trembled in the man’s clutch, jerking in the wind so violently it blended it in with his shirt — a living, breathing “tricolor.” The camera jostled as he leaned forward, so close, and yelled.
“Today we have won! No turnout, complete abstention. It is a day of victory for Venezuela.”
His smile was large, teeth perfectly straight. As I watched his six reflections play back on the screens, a dizzying hall of political mirrors, I thought he might be an attractive man if I had seen him on any other day, in any other place. But today, in all his vibrancy and forced victory, he ached to believe his words too much.
In one word, he was desperate.
On May 20, 2018, Venezuela held long-awaited presidential elections between Nicolas Maduro, incumbent dictator of Venezuela, Henri Falcon of the Progressive Advance party, and Javier Bertucci of the Hope for Change party. The latter two candidates, through their own labels and those of the regime in power, were considered the opposition. In the mind of the diaspora, however, neither were candidates to be voted for. Both Bertucci and Falcon were accused of being “enchufado,” or plugged into the system — corrupt. Though these claims were difficult to corroborate due to the general lack of reliable information systems in Venezuela and the complicated nature of tracing money trails, there was widespread anger at the participation of Falcon and Bertucci in elections that were clearly rigged from the beginning. Feeling as if there was no other option to internationally demonstrate this broken system, Venezuelans in the interior and abroad agreed to abstain from the election in a historic break from previous opposition tactics. There had not been an opposition-wide call for abstention since the 2005 parliamentary elections, when this tactic backfired against the opposition and turned out a National Assembly with all 167 seats won by President Hugo Chavez’s Fifth Republic Movement and allied, pro-government parties. However, after election after election going to the ruling party (PSUV) despite robust and active opposition, the populace agreed on abstention to delegitimize Maduro’s regime and remove any false trappings of democracy still being used by the government. Venezuelans, weathered by decades of fighting against increasingly skewed electoral playing fields, decided to go with a cynical but effective tactic that would send a clear message.
In a way, what I heard the man tell newscaster Carla Angola that day was correct. It was a day of victory for abstention, with a record low turnout rate of 32.3 percent by the time the polls closed, showing that the vast majority of Venezuelans were against Maduro and his fraudulent elections. May 20 and the spark of hope it ignited within the opposition internationally would become a crucial turning point in the current movement by interim President Juan Guaidó and the majority of the Venezuelan population to oust Nicolas Maduro. The energy put in place by the diaspora that day will continue to linger all throughout the community, invigorating hubs like El Arepazo from Doral to Caracas.
(1) A “guayabera” is a men’s summer shirt traditionally worn in the Caribbean, throughout northern Latin America, and in South Florida in Latinx communities.
(2) “Pana” and “chamo” are Venezuelan slang words for “friend” or “buddy.”
(3) "Bonche” is a slang word for party.