The Election That Matters


On October 7th, Venezuelans head to the polls for an election that will determine not only the future of the country and its Bolivarian Revolution, but that could also have powerful implications for the anti-capitalist struggle in Latin America and beyond.

A Tale of Two Elections

In what is painted as a battle for the country’s future between two opposing ideals, an incumbent often berated as a populist demagogue faces off against a representative of the moneyed elite. The former, a political outsider hated by the far right for his skin color; the latter, a wealthy former state governor completely out-of-touch with the plight of the working poor.

The election begins in a dead heat, but a series of public gaffes by the conservative candidate as well as a general lack of charisma consistently dog his campaign, leading him to increasingly desperate measures. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, a leaked recording reveals the emptiness of his rhetoric of unity and empathy.

I’m not talking about the U.S. election, Mitt Romney, or his now-notorious comments about the “47 percent.” I’m referring to the one election this Fall that really matters, because it represents the struggle for the future of the Americas: that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

A Tale of Two Venezuelas

The 1998 election of Hugo Chávez marked the entry of “the other Venezuela” into the official political life of the nation. This Venezuela, in the words of legendary folk singer Alí Primera, is the “Venezuela of the poor, the Venezuela with no reason, no reason to exist.” But exist it has for five decades or more, despite being obscured by a series of oil booms and the hermetic exclusion of the poor and dark-skinned from politics, high society, and the media.

This Venezuela did not appear publicly for the first time with Chávez’s election, but instead existed subterraneously in a multiplicity of movements, struggles, collectives, militias, organizations, that emerged for all to see and none to deny in the massive rebellions of February 1989 known as the Caracazo. This spontaneously organized appearance of the Venezuelan pueblo then led to the attempted coup by Chávez and others three years later, which saw the future president imprisoned. The revolutionary grassroots, and Chávez himself, were at a fork in the road: to run, or not to run, in the elections. Chávez had previously rejected the possibility, but over the course of the mid-1990s, his mind and the minds of millions of others were changed, and the collective decision to attempt power by the ballot instead of the bullet.

The tear in the continuum of history that appeared in 1989 and grew in 1992 was blasted open in 1998, destroying the existing political system and demanding something completely different, something that would truly represent the other Venezuela. In this task, there have been significant successes: the social welfare of the Venezuela people has been dramatically improved through the Mission system and the groundwork has been laid for a qualitative leap to a political system that breaks firmly with the past. But the present remains heavy with the residue of that past: in the corruption, the opportunism, and the multitude of halfhearted revolutionaries that surround Chávez and threaten to derail or reverse the process.

And not only that. When Chávez fell ill last year and disappeared unannounced to Cuba, a long avoided conversation was forced upon this other Venezuela. Where the very word “Chavismo without Chávez” had previously marked one as a reactionary, everyone was now grappling, albeit in hushed tones, with the question of this inevitability. When the comedy of errors that is the Venezuelan opposition seemed to finally unify behind a single candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the stage seemed set for a competitive election of the kind not seen in more than a decade: young against old, healthy against ill, the appearance of novelty against 14 years in power.

But it was not to be.

A Tale of Two Leaks

The difficulties for Capriles were clear from the outset. The less charismatic of two young symbols of the opposition, Capriles’ candidacy was only ratified amid continuing doubts about Leopoldo López’s eligibility to run due to corruption allegations. Capriles is the very image of the Venezuelan elite: light-skinned, wealthy, and utterly out of touch with the mass of Venezuelans, he even ran for Congress in 1998 under the green banner of the discredited Copei party, one wing of Venezuela’s corrupt “partyocracy” that held power for decades. Despite his youth, here was a man firmly of the past in a country where any association with the “Fourth Republic” is a kiss of death. Moreover, as mayor of the wealthy Caracas sector of Baruta during the brief 2002 coup against Chávez, Capriles came under suspicion for doing little to stop an angry mob that attacked and besieged the Cuban Embassy as part of a witch hunt for Chavista cabinet members.

Capriles needed desperately to shake this legacy, to cut any ties with the past and chart a course for the future. But this is no easy task when the past is neoliberal and the present socialist, and Capriles and the opposition United Democratic Roundtable (MUD) coalition have struggled for a platform in a country where state intervention remains immensely popular. They have consistently insisted that they would not dismantle the Mission system or engage in large-scale privatization, but this has begged the question: what sets Capriles apart from Chávez? Meanwhile, many have suspected that behind the soft-pedaled rhetoric of social democracy, of Chavismo with a younger and whiter face, there lurked the threat of reaction and of a return to the disavowed past.

Two recent leaks have made it clear how justified this suspicion was. First came the release of a secret agreement by opposition forces on some basic aspects of their plan for government. Surprisingly, the document was released by an opposition politician and former governer of Anzoátegui state, David de Lima, himself no friend of the Chavistas. Whereas Capriles has argued that his government would pursue a “Brazilian model” a la Lula (notably neglecting the latter’s support for Chávez), the leaked MUD document lacks even the trappings of social democracy, and instead reveals plans for extensive reforms of a markedly neoliberal stripe. The French sociologist Romain Migus has published a short book analyzing the MUD program, which sums up the situation best: these are “[neo]liberal wolves in progressive sheep’s clothing.”

While the MUD has denied any knowledge of what they dismiss as a “fake” document, even anti-Chávez politician William Ojeda has attacked the “hidden agenda” it contains (only to be promptly expelled from his party). The Chavistas have gone on the offensive, tying the MUD to the past in the most direct of ways be deeming the proposed reforms a “paquetazo” (big package), a direct reference to the neoliberal reform package that sparked the Caracazo, and which was imposed in similarly backhanded fashion by Carlos Andrés Pérez. This was a master stroke, and one that has struck the anti-Chavistas at their weakest point. In an ill-conceived and visibly desperate attempt to displace the controversy with humor, Capriles even suggested that “the women know” what the real “big package” is.

More damning still was the second leak, which provided a visceral reminder of how much of the past remains in the present. On September 13th, a video appeared of a conversation between former Capriles aide Juan Carlos Caldera apparently accepting a large pile of cash (reportedly $9,300) in exchange for arranging a face-to-face meeting between a wealthy businessman and Capriles. Caldera denied the charges, but was quickly booted from the campaign in a failed attempt at damage control: the memory of corruption past and the pained knowledge that it continues even within the Chávez regime meant that Capriles would not be spared the taint of suspicion. (The fact that the money allegedly came from Wilmer Ruperti, an oil transport magnate with friendly relations to Chávez seems odd at first glance, but less so once we consider that this would not be the first time that Ruperti had orchestrated an undercover video recording).

While opinion polls are notoriously politicized in Venezuela, the most established opposition firm, Datanálisis, has consistently given Chávez a margin of victory of between 13 and 16 percentage points. But even Datanálisis has been fudging the presentation, if not the numbers, to show a late rally for Capriles: on September 25th the firm released a poll showing Chávez with only a 10-point advantage, where the prior week had seen nearly a 15-point margin. While head pollster and Capriles supporter Luis Vicente León suggested this as proof of the “stellar” impact of the opposition campaign, he failed to note that the most recently released data is drawn from a poll that was conducted earlier, prior to these scandalous revelations.

A Tale of Two Plans

Largely as a result of both leaks and the hemorrhaging of public support they have prompted, the MUD coalition has begun to splinter. Citing the leaked MUD government plan on which they were not consulted, four smaller parties withdrew their support from Capriles, joining David de Lima and William Ojeda in the untenable in-between space between Chavistas and their opposite. A few short days later, on September 17th, one independent candidate withdrew from the race to throw his weight behind Chávez and an open supporter of the opposition went nearly as far. The first, Yoel Acosta Chirinos, declared that “My adversary is the right wing, and my historic ally is Chavez. The important thing is that the government is maintained [in power], and that more power goes to the people.” While Acosta had admittedly been a Chávez supporter in the past, the constitutional lawyer and firm anti-Chavista Hermann Escarra openly declared the MUD platform unconstitutional, and a step backward toward “the most savage capitalism.”

This splintering of Capriles’ coalition and frustration with the electoral Plan A has yielded the threat of a perennial “Plan B.” Such poor prospects yield nothing if not desperation among an elite so imbued with the idea of its own divine right to rule that it will not let trifles like “democracy” or “elections” stand in its way. After briefly ousting Chávez in a quickly reversed 2002 coup, the Venezuelan opposition struggled for years to shed the taint of golpismo, of coup-mongering. In this sense, Chávez’s last re-election in 2006 was historic: it was the first time that the majority of the opposition recognized the results as fair and clean. But when they did so, it was not out of some abstract faith in democracy, but political strategy, and the question is how long will they fail before deciding that the strategy of repeatedly losing elections is not working out for them.

We have seen more than whispers that a Plan B might be in the works in recent weeks. On August 25th, a massive explosion at the Amuay refinery (Venezuela’s largest) killed dozens, immediately raising suspicions that sabotage had been at play, since opposition pollsters had previously suggested that only a “catastrophic” event could prevent a Chávez victory.

More ominously still, a leading member of Vota Piedra, one of the parties that recently withdrew support from Capriles, took to the airwaves to reject this decision. Ricardo Koesling, who some have tied to the Cuban-American terrorist network led buy Luis Posada Carriles from the 1970s to the present, and who allegedly participated in the 2002 attack on the Cuban Embassy under Capriles’ watch, made it clear that his days of political violence are far from over, and that: “Capriles is going to be President, and we’ll use bullets, fists, kicks, everything we’ve got, to force the Chavistas out.”

But such a direct strategy of tension has never worked out for the anti-Chavistas, whose flailing attempts to gain power through force have only hurt them on the political terrain when the majority sent them packing. Either in recognition of this fact or as an open threat lest they dare, posters recently spotted in Caracas from the hardcore Chavista Venezuelan Popular Unity (UPV) party feature deceased radical leader Lina Ron alongside the popular slogan: “With Chávez everything, without Chávez bullets [plomo].”

More likely than direct acts of sabotage, however, is the constant threat that the opposition will refuse to accept or recognize a Chávez victory, and as in previous elections, the groundwork for this strategy is already being laid. From opposition pollsters who suggest a clear Capriles victory to then denounce the opposite, to suggestions that electoral observers near the Colombian border are preparing to sow chaos, to a leaked email suggesting that opposition leader Julio Borges is already preparing to cry fraud.

In this, the domestic Venezuelan opposition can count on working hand-in-hand with both the U.S. government and media. The latter is already replete with stories about the undemocratic Chávez regime and the impending electoral fraud, and the expelled former U.S. ambassador Patrick Duddy recently outlined a variety of possible alternatives for U.S. intervention into the post-electoral scenario. Such view plainly contradict the recent conclusion of the Carter Center (confirmed by the Union of South American Nations, UNASUR), that “of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

A Tale of Two Paths

Against those intransigent souls for whom elections can only be a trap, the Venezuelan example should give some hesitation. Few could have foreseen the collapse of the political system, the increasing social polarization, and the eventual resort to more or less open class combat that would be unleashed in part by Chávez’s election. Historical ruptures open possibilities, but political leaders are more often than not conditioned to make the wrong decision when it matters most. When Obama was elected, he could have, in theory at least, placed his bets on the poor, tacked hard to the left, and hoped to mobilize supporters faster than his enemies. Instead he did the opposite: giving up any radical pretensions from the get-go and charting a course of unabashed neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad.

Chávez provides an alternative possibility: elected as a moderate and populist, he acted both on gut instincts and on the advice of those radicals and movements that had cut their teeth in the struggle against the old Fourth Republic. Before he had accomplished much, or even intended to, the right struck back, and it was the interplay of the “whip of the counter-revolution” and powerful revolutionary movements, more than anything else, that radicalized the once-moderate Chávez. It is this combative dialectic, one that has made the Venezuelan revolution possible and yet one that is notably absent at the heart of the empire, that is at stake on October 7th.

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 gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.

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