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Venezuela’s regional elections: Another vote for the revolution and Chavez (now with video, audio)

Real News Network report, November 28, 2008: The media and the Venezuelan elections -- US media covers Chavez victory and calls it a defeat

Audio: Federico Fuentes on speaks to Latin Radical about election outcomes

November 28, 2008


25.5 Mb 128 kbps mono 28 mins

[For more analyses of the election results, see the `Comments' at the end of this statement]

Statement by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network

November 25, 2008 -- The results of the elections for local mayors and state governors held in Venezuela on November 23 underlined the continuing mass support for the Bolivarian revolution led by President Hugo Chavez.

In a clear vote of confidence in the project to build socialism of the 21st century in Venezuela, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) -- formed just six months ago with Chavez as its president -- won 17 of the 22 states in which governors were elected. The United States-backed right-wing opposition won five states with a total of about 4 million votes, compared to the 5.5 million votes for the PSUV candidates.

The elections were also a victory for democracy in Venezuela. The voter turn-out was the highest ever in regional elections, with 65.45% of those eligible casting their vote (compared to 45% in the last regional elections in 2004). Despite some opposition leaders threatening not to recognise the results if voting hours were extended, polling centres were kept open until 10.30pm in some places to ensure that everyone waiting in the long queues was able to vote, and international observers report that it was a completely free and fair ballot.

Jim McIlroy, a participant in the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network brigade currently in Venezuela who observed the voting at polling booths in Caracas, said: “There was a festive atmosphere at the booths, but it was also highly politicised: the people were taking their democratic right to vote very seriously.

“The computerised voting sytem is far more advanced than that used in Australia, and its ability to guarantee the accuracy of the whole process clearly has the confidence of the people.”

After the close of polls, Chavez congratulated the Venezuelan people for participating in the elections in a “civic and joyful” manner, saying that the process ratified Venezuelan democracy, but not the “democracy of before”, which “belonged to the elites”.

Red: PSUV win; Blue: oppositon win; White: no election; Arrows: gain for the opposition (AFP)

Overall, the November 23 vote for the PSUV – for the revolution and socialism -- increased by about 1.3 million on the pro-revolution vote in the constitutional reforms referendum last December. In contrast, the anti-revolution opposition’s comparative vote declined by about 300,000. As well, the Chavez suporters won back three states (Aragua, Guarico and Sucre) in which the incumbent governors had, over the last 18 months, defected to the opposition.

However, the sharp polarisation of Venezuelan society and the hard struggle still facing the poor majority to defend the gains of the revolution and realise their dream of a new socialist Venezuela is evident in the fact that the opposition, which won only two states in 2004 (oil-rich Zulia and Nueva Esparta), this time won three more from Chavez supporters (Miranda, Tachira, Carabobo). The opposition also won the position of mayor of Greater Caracas and now controls four of Caracas’s five municipalities, although the largest and poorest municipality, Libertador, was re-won by the pro-revolution candidate.

Already in control of 95% of the media in Venezuela, the right wing will without a doubt use these victories to escalate their ongoing campaign to overthrow Chavez, and undermine the Bolivarian revolution. As was exposed just a month before the regional elections, they will stop at nothing to halt the revolutionary process, including another military coup and the assassination of Chavez.

Capitalist media around the world, including in Australia, are supporting their campaign to discredit and destabilise Venezuela’s revolutionary government. An AFP report by Sophie Nicholson, for example, which was uncritically regurgitated in the Melbourne Age newspaper on November 24, pedalled blatant lies about the regional elections.

“Mr Chavez”, it stated, “has threatened to imprison opponents, or even send tanks onto the streets, if his party loses in the populous northwestern state of Carabobo”. In fact, Chavez said that the government would mobilise the military if there were destablisation attempts around the elections: a scenario that was not out of the question given the opposition’s constant public calls in national media for the violent overthrow of Chavez and his government.

The Melbourne Age article also claimed that “about 300 candidates, mainly from the opposition, have been prevented from running in the elections”. In fact, those barred from contesting were not mostly opposition candidates, and all were disqualified after investigations found them guilty of corruption.

Demolishing these and the numerous other efforts to paint him as some sort of “dictator”, Chavez immediately acknowledged the opposition’s victory in Carabobo, and the other four states. In doing so, however, he urged the opposition to behave democratically: “I hope you devote yourself to understand the people, govern with transparency, honesty and respect for the national government and the institutions of those states and municipalities. If you do so, you will deserve our acknowledgement; if you do not, the Constitution of the Republic will be imposed on you.”

Of the 17 governorships won by the PSUV, eight were won with at least 60% of the vote and most of the others were won with a more than 10% margin on the closest rival. In the local municipalty elections, which were held at the same time, the average vote for Chavista candidates was even stronger.

Despite the many difficulties and contradictions confronting the revolution, it is clear that the great majority of Venezuelans want the process of transferring resources and power to the poor majority to continue.

Chavez summed it up when he said that these election results ratify that “the path is the construction of socialism, and we have to deepen it”.

[Visit the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network website at www.venezuelasolidarity.org.]

Comments

Venezuela: Feet of Clay or an Achilles’ Heel?

Media outlets 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 a year ago in a slim referendum defeat, to finally reveal its feet of clay and come crashing down under its own weight. But the opposition had already squandered the slight momentum it achieved a year ago on partisan bickering, and would not live up to the unrealistic optimism it sought to foster in the media.

In reality, the catastrophic collapse of Chavismo was not to be, but nor was this a crushing victory or a clear mandate for the drastic radicalization of the revolutionary process. What was revealed was not feet of clay, but an Achilles' heel, giving necessary pause to revolutionaries and imposing reflection on some serious strategic losses.

Opposition Scaremongering

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, instead sending tanks to quell the opposition. Unsurprisingly, what Chávez had actually said was quite different: he had noted that the opposition candidate for the state governorship, Enrique 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 remain open as long as a line of voters remains. The day's high participation-the opposition knew from the outset-was not to 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 Giancarlo 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, with 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 have 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 has 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 on either side, 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. But 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. Testifying both to discontent with prior Chavista municipal leadership as well as PJ's concerted efforts to build support in the less-revolutionary barrios of Petare, it seems as though Sucre may have been the cause of the metropolitan area tipping toward the opposition.

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 since come to be 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 has 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 himself 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. Here, certainly, Cabello's own electoral feet were shown to be made of clay. If this bodes well for the superstar of the Venezuelan opposition---himself a possible presidential opponent in years to come---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, such control wouldn't last, and the social-democratic PODEMOS coalition would soon move toward the opposition, taking with it the states of Aragua and Sucre. Furthermore, as incumbent governors refused to be displaced by the PSUV primary process, further ruptures ensued in Guárico, Carabobo, and Yaracuy, reducing PSUV control of 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 had consolidated itself as the first 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, seen correctly, they have actually gained in the overall picture. And where they won, they often did so somewhat 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 that were elected Sunday, while representing an institutional level that remains necessary at the present moment, are nevertheless merely a stepping stone for many on the road to a more substantive popular-communal "dual power." As alternative institutions develop, specifically the local and directly-democratic communal councils, many hope to see the more heavily bureaucratized levels of government replaced entirely. And as the councils flex their muscles, 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.

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