LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
An election for president is underway in Venezuela. The autocratic Nicolas Maduro is seeking another term, despite his country's economic meltdown. He faces accusations that the election is designed to ensure he'll win. The mainstream opposition is boycotting the vote for that reason. All this amid economic catastrophe there with shortages of everything and a growing refugee crisis with Venezuelans fleeing to neighboring countries. We're joined now by NPR's Philip Reeves, who's in the capital. Good morning.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the scene there in Caracas?
REEVES: Well, shortly after polls opened, Lulu, I drove around the city. I went through the east, where the opposition parties have a lot of support. But as you mentioned, they're boycotting this, so it's hardly surprising. The streets there were pretty much deserted. But I then went to a polling station at a school in the west of Caracas, which is a stronghold of the ruling Socialist Party. And there weren't very many people voting there. People told me that in previous elections, the place is very busy. It certainly wasn't today.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.S. and many others say this election is not democratic. Are you seeing evidence on the ground of that?
REEVES: I mean, the government of Nicolas Maduro controls most of the media, the electoral authorities and the legislature that it actually created last year in an election that was widely seen as rigged and then called this vote. So it has all of that. It's also recently been providing more food handouts. Yesterday, I went to a giant supermarket where the shelves are now stocked with lots of stuff - ham, pasta, sardines. People said they're - that much of this food just wasn't there three weeks ago, and the prices are now significantly lower than before. But what was fascinating was that in the supermarket's underground car park, there were more than 100 troops from the National Guard in riot gear and about the same number outside with water cannon. So the government's clearly concerned about the risk of violence here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you talk to people on the streets there, what are they saying about this election when there's so much going on, when the country's in such a difficult place?
REEVES: A lot of people seem absolutely uninterested in it. They're struggling to get by and focusing on that. I did spend some time in a public square talking to people and met a few supporters of Nicolas Maduro who seem sincerely to support him and agree with his argument that Venezuela's a victim of an economic war led by the U.S. But his fans are hugely outnumbered by critics. I met a man called Jose Luiz (ph), who's 40. I asked him - and I asked him whether, you know, there's any chance whether Nicolas Maduro could lose this election.
JOSE LUIZ: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: So Jose Luiz thinks Maduro would lose if the elections were clean, but he says they're clearly tainted. He used to be a computer engineer, but he can't get work in that area. So he's now a security guard. It's actually Jose Luiz's birthday today, Election Day, and I asked him if he'd celebrate.
LUIZ: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: And he replied that in Venezuela, there's absolutely nothing to celebrate. He says every night, he sees about 50 people rifling for food in trash outside the building where he works, a lot of people. And that clearly distresses him and many others here. A lot of people here seem to have waited until the last minute, though, to decide whether to vote. And among them is Marilyn Villalobos (ph), who's a housewife, age 54.
MARILYN VILLALOBOS: (Speaking Spanish).
REEVES: She says she's not decided whether she'll vote. But if she does, it won't be for Maduro. One thing she does know, though, Lulu, is that she's going to leave the country if and when he wins. She has a son in Colombia, and she says she's all set to join him, becoming one of the multitude who've fled Venezuela in this crisis recently.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Multitude, indeed. As you mentioned, the mainstream opposition is boycotting this election. But there's one significant candidate - Henri Falcon, a former state governor. Some say he's a collaborator meant to give this election the veneer of legitimacy. But just briefly, is he a serious challenger?
REEVES: He's performed strongly in the polls, and some put him ahead in recent weeks, some of these polls. Everyone's focused on how many votes he'll get. It's unclear what the government would do if he actually won. Many people here find it hard to believe that Nicolas Maduro would actually leave power if he did so, though.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Caracas. Thank you so very much.
REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.