By Angus Berwick
CARACAS (Reuters) – Tweeted support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s re-election? There could be a reward of 350,000 bolivars for you.
Scanned a few hundred state-issued “fatherland cards” to see if their holders voted? A 300,000 bolivar reward could be yours – just $0.35 but the equivalent of a week’s salary for most Venezuelans.
In a practice decried by Maduro opponents as buying support, the socialist government is giving cash prizes to Venezuelans who helped in Maduro’s re-election on Sunday, according to interviews with four recipients and messages seen by Reuters.
Scores of Venezuelan voters said on social media and in interviews that they were waiting for the “prize” that had been promised by Maduro before the election to those who voted and then scanned their fatherland card, which grants access to certain welfare programs.
In a campaign speech on May 15, Maduro said all fatherland card holders who voted would receive a “fatherland prize, which is legal and constitutional.”
Five days on, the hashtag “WithoutAPrize” has started circulating on social media. In Caracas’s poor neighbourhoods, residents spread rumours about friends and relatives they heard had received up to 10 million bolivars for voting, while others said it was untrue.
“Be careful about letting down the revolution’s voters,” said Freddie Velazquez, 54, directing the comment to Maduro, as he carted scarce gas canisters down a street in the hillside slum of El Valle.
Incentives for voters contributed to denunciation of Venezuela’s election by Maduro’s opponents and the United States, European Union and other Latin American countries. Maduro’s main rival Henri Falcon called for a new election, complaining about the government placing some 13,000 stands offering “prizes” near polling stations.
Asked to comment on the prizes, Falcon’s Avanzada Progresista party said they were another example of the government’s “blackmail operation” against voters.
“We don’t believe there is any justice in using public funds to show gratitude for the vote,” the party’s political secretary, Eduardo Semtei, said in an email.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on voting incentives.
Venezuela began issuing Fatherland cards in January 2017. It started giving bonuses to card holders last December and since then has given 62 million awards, according to an Information Ministry statement this month.
Those bonuses, the government has said, were intended to protect people from the economic war Maduro has accused the United States of waging against the country.
Over 16 million Venezuelans have the cards, according to the government, but it has not divulged the total value of the bonuses.
On Mother’s Day, for example, some 5 million women received 1.5 million bolivars, enough to buy a coveted carton of 30 eggs.
This is a godsend in a country from which millions have fled because of extreme shortages of food, basic goods and medicine. Annual inflation is running at 14,000 percent, according to the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
The national election board, which the opposition has said is run by pro-government loyalists, prohibited the giving of prizes to Sunday’s electors.
Venezuela’s opposition has said the prizes, along with food handouts, were designed to make Venezuelans more dependent on the government and keep their support despite economic collapse.
Pedro Perez, 47, is one of the self-described “Patriotic Tweeters” who said the government rewarded him for posting thousands of pro-Maduro tweets daily.
“I don’t do it for the prize. I do it out of love for my Venezuelan homeland and to defend it from people who tell the world that we live in a dictatorship,” said Perez, a hostel manager on Venezuela’s Margarita Island.
Perez said that on Monday he got a notice on the fatherland card smartphone app awarding him a gold medal for social media activity with the message #VenezuelaIsDemocracy. A prize of 300,000 bolivars was then credited to his “fatherland wallet,” which he could transfer to his bank account.
At least 30 “Patriotic Tweeters” posted thanks to the government for prizes. The group’s internet page, which is owned by the ruling Socialist Party, recommends using hashtags such as “PeopleUnitedWithMaduro” and “WithNico.”
“It was a surprise as I didn’t know they would give me this just for tweeting,” user @cardozomaryl1 wrote in a private message referring to the receipt of 350,000 bolivars on Sunday. The tweeter declined to give a name.
Maduro has said he plans to “build the new Venezuela” with the fatherland cards, without providing a detailed plan.
The card system is opaque and the company that develops the Google Play apps linked to the cards, JMT Technology Solutions, did not respond to email and telephone calls for comment.
JMT’s registered address above a Caracas shopping mall was in use by a different company that said it had been there for two years and never heard of JMT. The mall’s administration said it had no record of JMT ever being there.
The government has not discussed the source of funds for prizes and bonuses. According to Henkel Garcia, director of Caracas consultancy Econometrica, funding for the prizes is not included in the government’s budget.
The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the funds or the government’s relationship with JMT.
In public groups on the Telegram messaging service, Venezuelans who worked as election day volunteers at the so-called “red points” stands shared photos of the 300,000 bolivar prizes they received for scanning voters’ fatherland cards.
“The prize is to encourage people to vote,” said Ruben Vega, a red point organizer in Caracas’s San Bernadino district.
(Reporting by Angus Berwick; Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld and Andreina Aponte; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn, Toni Reinhold)