[News] Venezuela - Feet of Clay or an Achilles’ Heel?

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Nov 28 11:48:41 EST 2008

Feet of Clay or an Achilles’ Heel?

George Ciccariello-Maher

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 
took aim [1] 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," 
insisted [2], "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 
up a majority [3] 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. 
is simply nonsense [4]. 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 
Rojas [5] 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 
this [6] 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."

to the early count [7], 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. 
Rodríguez insisted [8] 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 
power." [9] 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.
<http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/politics>Political Developments

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Source URL (retrieved on Nov 28 2008 - 12:49): 

[2] http://nuevaprensa.com.ve/content/view/10006/2
[3] http://aporrea.org/actualidad/n124559.html
[4] http://aporrea.org/actualidad/n124548.html
[5] http://aporrea.org/actualidad/n124544.html
[6] http://aporrea.org/actualidad/n124542.html
[7] http://aporrea.org/actualidad/n124541.html
[8] http://aporrea.org/actualidad/n124549.html
[9] http://www.monthlyreview.org/0907maher.php

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