Sunday’s election is unlikely to end Bolivarian revolution, but it might force embattled political class to negotiate.
When I arrived in the Venezuelan capital Caracas last week, I had with me a 100-bolivar note, left over from a visit last year.
Back then, it was enough to buy an Arepa – a delicious flatbread sandwich stuffed with meat and cheese, which is a traditional and wildly popular snack here.
On the black market my 100-bolivar note was worth about one US dollar. At the official tourist rate, two.
We need change. This cannot go on. The shortages, the prices and crime are unbearable.
So I could not believe my ears when I was told that my 100-bolivar note could now not even buy me a piece of chewing gum, much less an Arepa; they are now running at between 600 and 800 bolivares.
Paying for a simple pasta dinner for three the other night took at least twice as long as eating the meal. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as we built little mountains of 100-bolivar notes – the largest denomination there is – before handing the waiter 400 of them to settle our bill. Forty thousand bolivares.
To put that in context, Venezuela’s minimum monthly wage is about 9,000 bolivares. At official tourist exchange rates we spent about $200, though at the black market rate our bill would have been $44.
The distortions in the exchange rate due to price and currency controls are raising inflation, which now surpasses triple digits, according to independent economists.
Even a friend who is a staunch government supporter and makes 24,000 bolivares a month says she can’t afford to make ends meet. Shortages of basic goods – including medicine – force Venezuelans to either buy at inflated prices on the black market or spend two days a week queueing from as early as 5am for what they need.
“I knew [President] Maduro was not Chavez, but I never thought he would let the economy self-destruct like this,” she complained.
Driving around a low-income neighbourhood at midday, I noticed a long line outside a pharmacy.
“I have to spend the night out here to get a good position in the queue or by the time I get into the pharmacy there will be nothing left,” one woman told me, fighting back tears.
She told me that since President Hugo Chavez came to power 17 years ago she had always voted for the ruling party.
But not this time.
“We need change. This cannot go on. The shortages, the prices and crime are unbearable.”
Whether a majority of Venezuelans believe that those things are unbearable enough to end the leftist government’s almost 17-year domination of power, is what this election is about to tell us.