May 18, 2018 / 1:21 PM / in 7 months

With school canceled in run-up to vote, Venezuelans flock to beach

LA GUAIRA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Gym teacher Francisco Sanchez relaxed under an umbrella in his blue-and-white Speedo, as the light blue surf of the Caribbean sea crashed over a beach just outside Caracas.

People enjoy a day on the beach in La Guaira, Venezuela May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Luc Cohen

Usually, 59-year-old Sanchez would be at a parochial school in chaotic Caracas - but the government closed schools from Tuesday to use many of them as voting centers in Sunday’s presidential election.

Leftist President Nicolas Maduro is widely expected to be re-elected for a six-year term despite a crushing economic crisis, as the opposition coalition is boycotting the vote and the electoral council is pro-government.

So, depressed about their prospects, some opposition supporters sought reprieve from Venezuela’s politics and economic hardships on its palm-fringed beaches this week.

On a sandy stretch at the coastal town of La Guaira just an hour’s drive from Caracas, young men gulped down beer while kids splashed in the surf, delighted to be given extra days out of class.

“Here one can escape a little bit the craziness of Caracas. Not forget, because one can never forget, but here at least there is a little bit of calm,” said Sanchez, who plans not to vote.

Maduro’s two most popular rivals are barred from standing, and his candidacy benefits from food handouts.

“To me, these are not elections,” added Sanchez.

Maduro and his allies counter that Venezuela’s election system is exemplary and that opposition politicians are sore losers who know they would lose if they participated. The former bus driver and union leader attributes the economic woes to an opposition plot to undermine his “21st century socialism.”

Many of those sunning themselves were Maduro supporters pleased to have unexpected time with family.

“We’re taking advantage! We came to relax before going out on Sunday to vote for President Maduro,” said school kitchen worker Ginner Sequera, 39, as she snacked on chips with her two kids under an umbrella.

“The economic situation is tough because of an economic war, but we are still with Maduro.”

Maduro’s opponent, Henri Falcon, has broken with the opposition to run for the presidency, but many in the opposition view the former ally of late leader Hugo Chavez with suspicion.

“Falcon is a ‘Chavista’ in disguise,” said university music professor Edwin Arellano, as he watched his seven-year-old daughter frolic in the water.

Arellano said neither candidate had a viable plan to help him afford his $100 a month rent on his roughly $2 salary. “It’s more of the same. This time it’s not even worth voting.”

Reporting by Luc Cohen; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Steve Orlofsky

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