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Venezuela’s regime aims to demoralize the opposition ahead of July's election

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Motorcycle gangs, vengeful tax collectors, and ballots that are more like brainteasers - these are just some of the ways Venezuela's regime is trying to demoralize the opposition ahead of next month's presidential election. But as John Otis reports, these tricks don't seem to be working.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: When opposition leader Maria Corina Machado tried to visit the town of San Fernando de Apure, thugs on motorcycles loyal to President Nicolas Maduro blocked the only bridge connecting the town to the rest of Venezuela.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)

OTIS: Undeterred, Machado boarded a boat that motored her to the other side of the Apure River. Then she hiked up its muddy banks to the applause of supporters.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Cheering).

OTIS: Since Venezuela's presidential campaign kicked off last month, the opposition has faced one hurdle after another put in place by the Maduro regime, which has held power for the past 11 years. Polls predict Machado would crush Maduro in a free election. So, in its most brazen maneuver, his regime has banned her from running for president.

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Cheering).

OTIS: Even so, Machado is drawing huge crowds as she barnstorms across Venezuela to drum up votes for Edmundo Gonzalez. He's a former diplomat who is running for president in her place. Machado's endorsement has suddenly turned Gonzalez into the front-runner in the July 28 election.

EDMUNDO GONZÁLEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Cheering).

OTIS: Not surprisingly, the regime is now targeting Gonzalez. Last month, the National Electoral Council, which answers to Maduro, unveiled a presidential ballot that critics say is deliberately designed to confuse voters. Maduro, who has been nominated by 13 pro-government parties, appears on the voting card 13 times. By contrast, Gonzalez is almost camouflaged among a crowd of faces in the middle of the ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

OTIS: The opposition has responded with a voter education campaign that includes this jingle. In it, the singer explains that to find Gonzalez on the ballot, go five Maduros across and one down as if navigating a crossword puzzle. As for Maduro, his rallies have been smaller.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Cheering).

OTIS: At this one, the burly president tried to crowd surf. But without a very big crowd, his bodyguards had to hold Maduro up. Meanwhile, authorities are cracking down on anyone propping up the opposition. They have closed three hotels where Machado has stayed. They've confiscated sound systems used at her rallies. They even impounded the outboard motor of the boat captain who took her across the Apure River. However, such skullduggery has turned Machado into a kind of heroine while galvanizing the opposition.

For example, in the village of Corozo Pando, Machado's team stopped for breakfast at this roadside restaurant. Just a half hour later, tax authorities swooped in to close it down.

CORINA HERNÁNDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "It was the first time in my life the tax agency ever came here," says proprietor Corina Hernandez in a phone interview. But once again, the chicanery backfired. Hernandez set up her stove outdoors under a shade tree, and as word of the raid spread, she received a flood of orders from outraged Venezuelans.

HERNÁNDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "They tried to do us harm," she says, "but it turned out to be a blessing."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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