The media were predicting a disaster for Venezuela’s Chavistas. Desperate for news that was fit to print, the opposition-controlled Venezuelan press and its foreign counterparts convinced many that the time had come for Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution, after stumbling in a slim referendum defeat last year, to finally come crashing down under its own weight. But the opposition had already squandered the slight momentum gained a year ago on partisan bickering and could not live up to the unrealistic optimism fostered in the media.
In reality, the catastrophic collapse of Chavismo was not to be, but this wasn’t a crushing victory or a clear mandate for the sweeping radicalization of the revolutionary process either. What the elections on the 23rd of November revealed was an Achilles’ heel, giving necessary pause to revolutionaries and imposing reflection on some serious strategic losses.
For a Venezuelan opposition still not entirely comfortable with the notion of democracy, elections have much more to do with media maneuvering than the actual vote, and they would find in Simon Romero of the New York Times a convenient mouthpiece. Either through trademark laziness or unprecedented effort to distort the truth, Romero took aim at Chávez’s recent statements regarding the election in the state of Carabobo, suggesting that the president was threatening to refuse to recognize an opposition victory in the state, sending tanks to quell the opposition instead. Unsurprisingly, what Chávez had actually said was quite different: he had noted that the opposition candidate for the state governorship, Henrique Salas Feo, had been an active participant in the 2002 coup, suggesting that an opposition victory in Carabobo might provide a staging ground for another effort at his ouster. “I won’t let them overthrow me,” Chávez insisted, “and I might have to bring out the tanks to defend this revolutionary government.”
With the mediatic framework in place, the opposition on the ground engaged in the perennial strategy of preemptively undermining the eventual results of the election. At 4pm on election day, opposition leaders — conspicuously including Ismael García, leader of the formerly-Chavista PODEMOS — declared “generalized fraud” as some electoral centers remained open after the nominal closing time, demanding that voting centers be closed immediately. But such calls were in open violation of Venezuelan law, under which voting centers are obligated to stay open as long as a line of voters remains. A high rate of participation — the opposition knew from the outset — was not in their favor.
Participation was indeed high: some 66% of registered voters are reported to have turned out, a record of sorts for local elections. And this despite the torrential rains that have pelted much of the country in recent days, prompting inevitable comparison to the notorious rains and cataclysmic mudslides that plagued the 1999 constitutional referendum and the equally-notorious declarations by the Catholic Church that the rains constituted a punishment for Chávez’s impudence. This vote, however, was not that of an exuberantly young process as in 1999, but rather a necessary hurdle to be surpassed as a sign of institutional revolutionary maturity, and therein lay the specific challenges it posed.
Modest Opposition Gains
In the western oil state of Zulia, Chavista candidate and former mayor of Maracaibo Gian Carlo Di Martino put up a valiant fight, garnering some 45% of the vote in what had been an opposition stronghold against hand-picked successor of former opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, Pablo Pérez, who won 53%. While this victory for the opposition — like the win in Nueva Esparta state –was no surprise, the relative tightness of the race was. And equally surprising was the fact that Chavistas managed to pick up a majority of mayoral races in the escualido stronghold of Nueva Esparta.
More surprising, however, were slim opposition pickups in Táchira and Carabobo states. In traditionally conservative Táchira, Chavistas had fared poorly in recent years, a fact not helped by the departure of Luis Tascón, a fiery Tachirense, from the PSUV ranks. In Carabobo, incumbent former Chavista Felipe Acosta Carlez — best known for offending the press by belching and farting on television — refused to comply with PSUV internal elections, insisting on running for re-election against the official Chavista candidate and TV personality Mario Silva. While Acosta Carlez only took 6.5%, this was almost certainly enough to tip the scales in a close race only decided by three percentage points.
A Key Loss in Metropolitan Caracas
The two most surprising and significant victories for the opposition were certainly in metropolitan Caracas and the neighboring state of Miranda, and both have clear repercussions for the future, since the defeated Chavista candidates were the two most likely successors to the president himself. But the lessons to be taken from the two are different. While Chávez’s own support is highest in rural areas, in past elections the president has generally been able to win many of the country’s large metropolitan areas, albeit by small margins. Caracas itself is a city divided, with poor barrios voting overwhelmingly for Chávez and the wealthier — but less populated — areas voting up to 80% against. It has been from these opposition zones that the young leadership of the right have emerged, in the charismatic figures of Leopoldo López and Henrique Radonski, both with their origins in the far-right, U.S.-sponsored Primero Justicia party.
While López was disqualified from seeking election as metropolitan mayor due to pending corruption charges, he threw his significant weight behind far-right former Caracas mayor and previously intransigent abstentionist Antonio Ledezma. Indeed, for an opposition which tends to be its own worst enemy, López’s disqualification may have proven a blessing in disguise, as it avoided the always messy process of selecting a joint candidate. The Chavista candidate, Aristóbulo Isturiz, is a former education minister and one of the most respected names within the Revolution, having risen from union ranks to the Congress when Chávez himself was a young coup plotter. In the end, however, Ledezma pulled off an upset, returning him to a post that he held more than a decade ago, when he had close ties to the now-discredited politicians of the Venezuelan ancien regime.
For an explanation as to how Ledezma managed this upset victory, we need to look at the five municipalities that make up metropolitan Caracas. Three are traditionally opposition bastions, and it is from two of these that López and Radonski emerged, whereas the sprawling municipality of Libertador in western Caracas has consistently gone Chavista. Despite multiple candidacies, Chavistas maintained this control of Libertador, with former vice president Jorge Rodríguez winning handily over opportunist student leader Stalin González by a double-digit margin. The only Caracas municipality to shift hands was Sucre in the east, a complex combination of upper-middle-class residential areas and the infamous Petare slums, in which Primero Justicia’s Carlos Ocariz defeated former Chavista interior minister Jesse Chacón by 8 percentage points. Sucre, the cause of the metropolitan area tipping toward the opposition, testifies to discontent with prior Chavista municipal leadership as well as PJ’s concerted efforts to build support in the less-revolutionary barrios of Petare.
We would be wrong to interpret this opposition coup in the metropolitan area of Caracas as having merely political implications: in the last real coup, in 2002, the opposition-controlled Metropolitan Police played a key role in staging the bloodbath used to justify Chávez’s ouster. And given the fact that in many areas the Metropolitan Police have effectively withdrawn, allowing revolutionary popular militias to control security, the next few years could see open warfare once again on the streets of Caracas. This victory for the opposition, while slim in margin, is potentially massive in its implications.
Diosdado Goes Down
The other shock defeat for the Chavistas came in neighboring Miranda state, which itself contains half of the metropolitan area of Caracas. Here, Chávez’s right-hand-man (emphasis on the “right”), Diosdado Cabello, has been governing and consolidating a significant power base during the past four years. Originally a participant in Chávez’s failed coup efforts, Cabello has been a powerful and loyal ally of the president, stepping in as vice president during the 2002 coup to help undermine the coup. But Cabello has also come to represent the “endogenous right,” quietly heading up the significant contingent of Chavistas who would like to take power themselves and moderate the revolutionary process. As a result of this uncomfortably public role as leader of the Chavista right, Cabello had suffered the scorn of voters before, notably within the PSUV itself, where he didn’t manage to score within the top 15 elected members of the party leadership (only to be subsequently appointed by Chávez).
If Cabello’s star is fading, his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski is a rising star of the opposition and currently mayor of Baruta municipality. A young, charismatic heartthrob, whose personal website features the mayor in several shirtless, modelesque poses, Radonski has also (like López) run afoul of the law, for participating in a public attack and siege on the Cuban Embassy during the 2002 coup. Luckily for Radonski, however, charges were dropped in time for the elections, in which his record of governance in wealthy Baruta combined with Diosdado’s waning popularity to deliver a heavy defeat in Miranda. Now, Cabello’s electoral feet were shown to be made of clay. If this bodes well for the superstar of the Venezuelan opposition — himself a possible presidential candidate in the future — the result isn’t entirely negative for those Chavistas who had grown wary of Cabello’s increasingly visible role within the governing movement.
The Map Is Still Red
The mainstream press has made every effort to frame these elections in such a way that the opposition would inevitably appear as the winner. Central to this framing was the oft-repeated claim that, prior to the election, Chavistas controlled 21 of 23 state governments. This is simply nonsense. While it is true that after the 2004 gubernatorial elections Chavistas had gained control of 21 states, that didn’t last, as the social-democratic PODEMOS coalition soon moved toward the opposition, taking with it the states of Aragua and Sucre. Furthermore, further ruptures ensued in Guárico, Carabobo, and Yaracuy, as the incumbent governors refused to be displaced by the PSUV primary process, reducing PSUV incumbents to 16.
As first vice president of the PSUV Alberto Müller Rojas put it in his post-election press conference, “we regained four states lost through treason,” further noting that the PSUV consolidated itself as the premier political force in the country. Chávez himself echoed this sentiment in a surprise appearance just moments later:
We’re almost ten years from that initial victory, and the people have expressed their will, and vaya, con qué contundencia! . . . Once again we see the shattering of those irrational, outlandish, and unsubstantiated arguments that some still dare to make about Venezuela. . . . Both those who voted for the Revolution and those who voted for other candidates, they all showed that here we have a democratic system, that here we respect the decision of the people. . . . Who could say that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela?
Speaking directly to opposition claims to have defeated Chávez and the PSUV, his response was stark: “If they want to fall into lies, let them fall into lies . . . we have won 17 gubernatorial races, our party has been consolidated, we are headed for 6 million votes, and the map [of Venezuela] is dressed almost totally in red!” But the president warned nevertheless of the need to self-criticize, recognize errors, and take responsibility for the losses incurred, “because it’s like a war, when an advancing army takes 20 hills and loses two, but takes three more on the way. What is most important is to maintain the rhythm of the march and the rhythm of victory.”
According to the early count, the PSUV obtained 5.3 million votes, compared with the 4.3 million garnered by the opposition, and this despite losing the two most densely populated states in the country. Jorge Rodríguez insisted that the opposition recognize the clear PSUV mandate, arguing that “when it comes to the strength of Venezuelan democracy, you can’t block out the sun with your finger.” But we can expect the privately controlled Venezuelan press and their international counterparts to attempt to do just that, insisting that the Chavistas have dropped from 21 to 17 states, when in reality they have actually gained in the overall picture. And where they won, they often did so astoundingly, claiming some 73% in Lara and 61% in Vargas. Chavistas won a total of 8 states by 10% or more, 4 states by 20% or more, and 2 states by 50% or more, as compared to the opposition’s best showing of 57% in Nueva Esparta.
The Achilles’ Heel of the Revolution
If we were to follow the mainstream press talking points, the lesson of the elections was the failure of the Revolution in dealing with the everyday wants and needs of the Venezuelan population. This is half true, but the issue is too often reduced to its most mundane aspects, depriving the Venezuelan people of the capacity for political judgment. Certainly, the fact that garbage often piles up in the streets and that violence continues to plague Venezuelan cities contributed to the shock defeat of Chavista forces in the metropolitan area. But the banality of the everyday doesn’t quite capture the gap between Chávez’s 63% approval rating and the tangible repulsion that many Venezuelans feel for their local officials, who are often seen — with more than a little justification — as corrupt opportunists.
The municipal and state officials who were elected Sunday represent an institutional level that remains necessary at the present moment. Nevertheless, they are merely a stepping stone on the road to a more substantive popular-communal “dual power,” for many who hope to see the more heavily bureaucratized levels of government replaced entirely by alternative institutions, specifically the local and directly democratic communal councils. As the councils flex their muscles, however, these elected officials will become all the more rabidly defensive of their power quota. Which is all to say that, if local elections represent the Achilles’ heel of the Bolivarian Revolution, perpetually threatening to trip up its progress and disrupt its connection with the grassroots, we can only expect this conflict to intensify in the short term.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He is currently writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution entitled We Created Him. He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.