[News] Venezuela - The Ballot and the Bullet

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Mon Oct 8 11:45:07 EDT 2012

October 08, 2012
Election Diary, Venezuela

  The Ballot and the Bullet




*The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie*

We made the mistake of flying into Caracas as Chávez was closing his 
campaign in the capital, up to 3 million of his red-shirted supporters 
clogging seven large city streets (the opposition had crowed proudly 
about having merely filled the Avenida Bolivar the previous week). As we 
sat in traffic, the minutes stretching into hours, our /taxista 
/comrade's triumphalism took the form of sarcasm: "You see all this 
traffic," she insisted, pointing at the hundreds of buses and cars full 
of Chávez supporters hanging out windows, honking horns, and waving 
flags, "this is the proof that the /Presidente /will be defeated."

On the other side of this powerfully segregated metropolis, the tension 
was palpable but its source unclear. Upscale supermarkets were as 
clogged as the streets of the city center, but instead of the poor 
headed home after a triumphant march that for many sealed victory, now 
it was the well-heeled middle and upper classes stockpiling margarine, 
/harina /Pan for making /arepas/, and kilos of sugar. Many, their 
shopping complete, threw a few extra /bolos /at a worker to push their 
shopping carts up the uneven sidewalks: such is their undeniable charm.

This hysteria echoes and is stoked by the opposition press domestically 
and internationally, and some of the fears are comical at best, as with 
the self-styled exile who had a hard time 
finding a phone card in Caracas' wealthiest neighborhood: /surely /the 
world must be rapidly approaching its end. While we expect such things 
from what is often dismissed as remnants of the "rancid oligarchy," 
arguably more surprising was the coverage in the run-up to the election 
provided by /The Guardian/'s Rory Carroll 
who piled unsubstantiated claims upon nonsense to create a sense that 
the Chávez campaign was stumbling amid its patent inability to govern 
the country.

What are they afraid of, these domestic and foreign sowers of worry and 
discord? A combination of an irrational, racist, and classist fear of 
the Chavista other, and a deeper fear of themselves: the knowledge that 
if anything happens after the election, it will almost certainly be 
their doing. For Chavistas, awareness of the possibility of an 
opposition "Plan B" is the only damper on their expectations of victory.

*Preparing for a Plan B*

The night before the elections, I attend a clandestine security meeting 
in a /barrio /of southwestern Caracas, no doubt one of many such 
spontaneous gatherings of revolutionaries to discuss the possible 
security scenarios the election might bring. The participants discuss a 
plan for anonymously escaping from the neighborhood in the event of a 
coup or local clashes, but simmering under the surface is the question 
of what to do if Chávez loses, knowing full well that many of the most 
militant collectives which dot the Venezuelan political landscape have 
no intention of accepting defeat. "The Tupamaros aren't going to sit 
around with their arms crossed," one suggests.

This question of whether or not to recognize an opposition victory at 
the polls is hopelessly entangled with the certainty that no such 
victory is possible: as former vice president and current mayor of 
western Caracas put it at a press conference, Chávez will lose /cuando 
las ranas echan pelos/,/ /when frogs grow hair. But there is also the 
very real and open question of whether such a massive step backward 
could be justified to conform to the formalities of a representative 
democracy that has always been viewed with suspicion by grassroots 
revolutionaries seeking to build a more participatory and direct form of 

Another rejects the mere suggesting of leaving the /barrio/: "We can't 
be cannon fodder, but why would we flee?" The specter of Chile and 
Pinochet's coup hangs heavy, a constant reference point for hopes 
crushed and mistakes made, and the majority of revolutionary collectives 
seem to have learned the fundamental lesson of the Chilean tragedy. As 
one puts it, "I never have confidence in the police, in the military," 
and the only trustworthy bulwark against the forces of reaction is 
popular self-defense

*"Va a haber un peo"*

At 3:15 in the morning, the trumpet calls of the /toque de Diana /shook 
the city from its tense half-slumber. Here the imperative to vote early 
is taken with the utmost seriousness, and before 4am many in Chávez 
strongholds had already taken their places outside their polling stations.

First thing in the morning, I head to the historically combative 
neighborhood of 23 de Enero with some comrades to take the pulse of the 
most extreme fringe of the Chavista movement, those armed revolutionary 
collectives and popular militias whose very existence is an open affront 
to the state's monopoly of force. When we approach the headquarters of 
Radio 23 Combativa y Libertaria, lookouts spot us and a motorcycle 
trails slowly behind to make sure we're not up to no good. Glen, a local 
revolutionary leader whose failing sight does little to dampen his 
revolutionary extremism, speaks to us frankly about how he sees the 
scenario: "/creemos que va a haber un peo/," the opposition is likely to 
cause some sort of disturbance and refuse to accept the results of the 

The often tense relations between the dozens of armed collectives 
operating in el 23 have been put aside to make military and political 
preparations for such an eventuality: "/candela que se prenda, candela 
que apagamos/, whatever fires they light, we will put out" (here not 
speaking entirely metaphorically). The opposition has used their wealth 
to accumulate weaponry, he tells me, but this doesn't worry them too
much, since guns come with /balas /not /bolas/, they come with bullets 
but not the prerequisite "balls" to pull the trigger.

Glen is more unambiguously Chavista than when I spoke with him four 
years ago amid heightened tension between the collectives and the 
police. No amount of intermittent tension with the government could 
justify a return to the past: "before we were persecuted, we were 
imprisoned, we were murdered... We are no longer clandestine thanks to 
Chávez." It is precisely those who have felt the hot lead of governments 
past who are least likely to accept any step backward, and Glen is no 
exception: they do not believe that there is any chance that Chávez will 
lose the election, but if this were to happen they have absolutely no 
intention of accepting the result, despite the fact that they believe 
that Chávez himself would.

But he also sees this election as Chávez's "last chance": the popular 
masses support Chávez, but have a "contained rage" toward the abuses 
perpetrated by those who often wear the red shirts of Chavismo. The 
forces of the revolution will only be undermined if corrupt or 
out-of-touch candidates are imposed from above in the upcoming regional 
elections. "Every day the war, the combat intensifies, and the right, 
the /majunches no dan tregua/, they don't rest in their effort to retake 
spaces of power" once controlled by revolutionaries.

The day that this Revolution becomes reformist, all will be lost: 
"Chávez is our spokesperson. It's not that he's indispensable, but he's 
indispensable at this moment." Despite his open and unmitigated support 
for this leader without whom a civil war would be almost inevitable, 
Glen nevertheless does not mince words: "either Chávez assumes the task 
[of deepening the process] or he can fuck off."

*Between Constituent and Constituted*

In a powerful instantiation of the peculiarities of revolutionary 
Venezuela, where we speak to Glen is but a few minutes walk and a 
rickety /barrio /stairway away from where Chávez himself is preparing to 
vote. The press and supporters gather in the hot sun and wait more than 
two hours for the /Comandante /to show his face, with cheers erupting 
for every minister and local political leader who arrives on the scene. 
When Chávez himself arrives, the roar is deafening:

    /Uh, Ah, Chávez no se va/

    Chávez isn't going anywhere

    /Pa'lante, Pa'lante, Pa'lante Comandante/

    onward, onward, onward Comandante

None of this is surprising, but less noticed is the fact that these 
elected officials, these representatives of the people who occupy 
positions in the structures of constituted power, are waving to the 
adoring crowds from beneath murals and banners of yet another 
revolutionary collective, Alexis Vive, which while supporting the 
government similarly maintains a fierce constituent independence from 
the centralized power of the state.

This peculiar interweaving of constituent power and constituted state 
authority which characterizes our itinerary throughout the day, is a 
profound and frequently misunderstood element of the political process 
underway in Venezuela. Much of this misunderstanding, moreover, comes 
from the fact that constituted power is often hesitant to publicly 
embrace its own revolutionary constituents. Chávez frequently condemns 
as "ultra-leftist" the provocative actions of the collectives, and most 
centrally La Piedrita, led by Valentín Santana, who on paper at least is 
being sought by the police and is subject to arrest. But as one militant 
tells me, it was at the behest of the Chávez government itself that 
Santana was laying low in the run-up to the election, since such 
provocations could only harm the president's re-election effort. Such 
discomfort at the closeness of the movements is understandable for those 
tasked with governing, but it is also the most powerful motor that this 
revolutionary process has.

In the afternoon, belly full of the sort of hearty /sancocho /stew that 
isn't to be found in wealthy parts of the city, I head to the southern 
/barrio /of El Valle, where the revolutionary organization Bravo Sur has 
established a /sala situacional/. These /salas /are, like the security 
meeting of the previous night, makeshift headquarters established to 
keep track of current developments and to make the decisions necessary 
for any eventuality. A ten-year-old stands up, displaying his right 
pinky finger, painted to look as though he, too, had voted, giving an 
improvised speech on his expectation that Chávez will win, and that if 
he doesn't, /estamos perdidos todos/, we are all lost.

As afternoon becomes evening, however, optimism in the room gives way to 
clear worry, stoked by text messages flowing in from across the country, 
and rumors that Chávez has lost his home state of Barinas due to the 
mismanagement of his family (this proved untrue), that his lead has 
dwindled in early reporting to a mere 7 percent, and that some armed 
provocations from the opposition were already appearing in Petare, the 
largest and most dangerous of Caracas' /barrios/. By 6:45 texts from 
Miraflores Palace speak of a 12 percent margin, others of 15 percent, 
but as the polls close, no one is resting comfortably.

*Soldiers and Revolutionaries*

It's time to zip across the city once again, back toward the capital, 
this time perched precariously on the back of a motorcycle. A comrade 
asks me, "do you want to go safe or fast?" "Both" doesn't seem to be an 
available option and so I settle for the latter. As we tear across the 
city, slowing only slightly for red lights, strangers shout "/Ganó!/" 
from street corners: "He won!" Back in the heart of the revolution, 23 
de Enero, the celebration has begun. Despite the /ley seca/, or dry law, 
rum and beer is flowing freely and many haven't slept for 36 hours 
already. Amid the pounding reggaeton and the din of motorcycle engines, 
a red-clad woman eulogizes her "beautiful president, who has always had 
his feet in the dirt like us."

As I stand speaking with her in the recently renovated Che Guevara Plaza 
overlooking the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, the National Electoral 
Council announces that Chávez has been re-elected by a margin of 10 
percentage points. The /barrio /explodes, and massive fireworks appear 
in the sky over 23 de Enero. While 10 percent would constitute a 
landslide anywhere else, the celebration is as much about relief as 
anything else: for a candidate that won by more than 20 percent in 2006, 
this race was too close for comfort.

At the Coordinadora, the particularities of this unprecedented 
revolution are on full display. Two paratroopers roll up on a motorcycle 
with AK-47s, dismount, and to the joy of the crowd shout "Viva Chávez!" 
They have clearly been here before, and stride confidently into the 
Coordinadora, which is housed in a former police outpost and torture 
station. In a powerful and touching expression of the unprecedented 
fusion of revolutionaries and soldiers that has emerged in recent years, 
one warmly embraces Juan Contreras, a longtime militant and founder of 
the Coordinadora who for many years was the emblem of struggles against 
the existing order. Watching this uniformed and armed soldier hug 
someone who was considered a terrorist for most of his life, I realize 
just how far we are from the Chilean example.

By now, hundreds of bullets from handguns and automatic rifles fly from 
every rooftop, and even these paratroopers cringe as a batch of 
fireworks misfire only 20 feet away. Someone notices that the opposition 
candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski is preparing to speak, and we pile 
into the front room of the Coordinadora, ragtag revolutionaries, foreign 
sympathizers and collaborators, and soldiers with automatic weapons 
hanging from their shoulders, to listen with a surprising level of 
respect as Capriles accepts defeat.

To paraphrase the great revolutionary thinker C.L.R. James, we could say 
that revolutions do not occur at the ballot-box, they are merely 
registered there, and while the dialectic is in practice more complex, 
there is a fundamental truth to this statement. This election, like 
Chávez himself, is the /result /of something far more profound that has 
been developing for decades, and which has accelerated considerably in 
recent years. It is only by grasping this fundamental truth that we can 
hope to contribute to the further deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution 
over the next six years.

*/George Ciccariello-Maher/*/ teaches political theory from below at 
Drexel University in Philadelphia, and is the author of //We Created 
Chávez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution 
forthcoming from Duke University Press. He can be reached at 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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