By Mariela Nava and Tathiana Ortiz

MARACAIBO/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela – Daniel Briseno lives in a poor part of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s once-rich oil city, where he checks almost daily to see if a letter confirming he has permission to move to the United States has finally arrived in the mail.

Briseno, who wants to move to the U.S. with his elderly mother, is fed up of dealing with the challenges of Maracaibo, which has suffered from acute shortages of basic services such as electricity and water for a decade.

But the 44-year-old Briseno might change his mind if there is a change of guard following July’s presidential election.

“I’d like to stay in Venezuela because I know that if the government changes, the oil industry will return in full force,” said Briseno, who spent 15 years supervising oil well drilling before losing his job in 2020 as crisis set in to Venezuela’s economy.

Opposition candidate Edmundo Gonzalez, who is trying to unseat Socialist President Nicolas Maduro, has focused part of his campaign on pledges to seek to bring back the 7.7 million Venezuelans who have fled the country during years of economic and political upheaval. Gonzalez has emphasized families’ desire to be reunited.

If change does not follow July’s election, swathes more of Venezuelans could seek to leave the country, ORC Consultores director Oswaldo Ramirez said.

Almost 16% of those polled by ORC Consultores in May said they will leave quickly if their preferred candidate does not win in the July 28 vote. Opposition supporters are significantly more likely to say they would seek to leave than Maduro supporters, the survey showed.

Some 2.8 million Venezuelans already live in Colombia, with 1.5 million in Peru and 568,000 in Brazil. There has also been a sharp increase heading north to cross into the United States.

Maduro, who has been in power since 2013 and is seeking his second reelection, has presided over economic collapse, with a loss of over 73% of Venezuela’s gross domestic product during his government, according to researchers from the Institute of Superior Administration Studies in Caracas.

Many Venezuelans say they want to vote against Maduro because they want to halt the deterioration to their quality of life, said Ricardo Rios, president of Caracas-based consulting company Poder y Estrategia.

But Western governments have said there are significant obstacles to a free and fair vote. Maduro’s 2018 re-election was rejected by the opposition and many Western governments as a sham.

‘REBUILDING WILL TAKE TOO LONG’

Even if there were a change in government, that would be too little, too late for some.

No matter what, Briseno’s mother wants to join his brother, who now lives in Utah where he works as a package deliveryman, a job that lets him send $300 each month for food and medicine to his family in Maracaibo.

Legally in the U.S., Briseno’s brother can sponsor family members for up to a year while their case is heard, under a scheme run by the U.S. government for migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua.

Briseno’s mother, Pragedis Rivero, is skeptical a change in leadership will help and plans on leaving anyway.

“This government has not left the country so good and to rebuild it to even half of what it was will take too long,” she said while peeling garlic in her kitchen.

While Maduro once laughed at Venezuelan migrants who he said were cleaning toilets in richer countries, during the election campaign he has urged Venezuelans to return home amid a recovering economy.

Some 430 kilometers (267 miles) south of Maracaibo, in a hospital in San Cristobal near the Colombian border, Yubizay Chacon, 29, earns about $130 per month working as a nurse.

Occasionally, Chacon, who has a 6-year-old daughter, makes extra money caring for patients privately, charging $30 per day.

But it is hard to make ends meet. The average price of monthly groceries for a family of five was around $547 in May, according to data from the non-governmental Center for Documentation and Social Analysis of the Venezuelan Federation of Teachers.

Like so many other Venezuelans, Chacon has been contemplating leaving the country to seek a better life.

“You know that abroad you are going to work a lot, but you can be confident working will solve financial problems, which brings peace, tranquility and security that things can be obtained with sacrifice,” Chacon said.

If Maduro stays in power, migrating may be the only option, she said.

But she was optimistic that a win for Gonzales would “give us more employment opportunities and more opportunities to have benefits as workers.”

“Leaving the country would make me sad,” Chacon said. “It depends on who wins.”

(Report by Mariela Nava in Maracaibo, Tathiana Ortiz in San Cristobal, and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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