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Maduro faces uphill election battle after leading Venezuela into crisis

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

About 7.7 million Venezuelans have fled their country to escape poverty and political turmoil. That is about one-fifth of Venezuela's population. This mass exodus has broken apart Venezuelan families and is now a potent issue in this month's presidential election. Reporter John Otis has more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Venezuelans line up outside their embassy in Bogota, Colombia, where they're waiting to renew passports and notarize documents. Most came to neighboring Colombia to find jobs as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro clamped down on Democratic rights and led the country into its worst economic crisis in history. They miss Venezuela and the family members they left behind.

GUSMARY ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Among them is Gusmary Escobar who laments that she was unable to be at her father's side in Venezuela when he died last year.

ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We all want to go back home," Escobar says. "If things changed, we would return at once."

It turns out that Venezuela could be in for a change later this month. President Maduro, who's held power for the past 11 years, faces an uphill battle to secure reelection in the July 28 balloting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: Meanwhile, at her crowded campaign events, opposition leader Maria Corina Machado is pledging that by getting rid of Maduro, Venezuela will flourish. "Migrants will come home," she says, "and families will no longer have to celebrate holidays and birthdays via long-distance phone calls."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Mothers are without their children. Brothers and sisters are separated. Grandparents don't know their own grandchildren," Machado said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "No more family separations," she said. "We are going to end this era of destruction and division."

The Maduro regime has banned Machado from running for president. So she's barnstorming on behalf of Edmundo Gonzalez, her replacement on the ballot. Most polls show that Gonzalez would crush Maduro in a free election. For his part, Maduro has long ignored his own role in creating the worst migration crisis ever in the Americas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But with election day approaching, he's pledging to open a special government office to help returning migrants secure jobs and schooling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: "It's time to come home, to work, to produce, to get back to your beloved homeland," Maduro said.

However, Ligia Bolivar, who heads a rights group for Venezuelans living in Colombia, says Maduro has zero interest in migrants. Most would vote against him, she says, but his regime has made it nearly impossible for Venezuelans abroad to cast ballots.

LIGIA BOLIVAR: If Maduro was so concerned about the situation of migrants, why don't we have full rights, like, for example, the right to vote?

OTIS: If Maduro refuses to allow a free election on July 28 or to respect the results if he loses, it could trigger another wave of migration. A poll released in May said 40% of Venezuelans would consider leaving if Maduro remains in office. Among them is a desperate young woman who spoke up at a recent opposition campaign event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She said, "whether or not I stay put in Venezuela depends on what happens on July 28."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAO SONG, "LIFELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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