Opposition gains mar Chavista election win

November 26, 2008

Lee Sustar reports that Venezuela's conservative opposition made a breakthrough in strategic areas despite an overall victory for President Hugo Chávez's party.

VENEZUELA'S OPPOSITION scored some strategic gains in regional and local elections November 23, even though President Hugo Chávez's party won about 57 percent of the overall vote in an election with high turnout.

Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV, according to its Spanish initials) won 17 of 22 state elections for governor. But it lost control of three important states--Miranda, Tachira and Carabobo--as well as the post of mayor of Greater Caracas; the positions were captured by the U.S.-backed right-wing opposition.

The right also held onto the state of Nueva Esparta and won in the oil-producing state of Zulia--which the Chavistas had tried hard to capture--with a big majority.

Chávez insisted that the PSUV--created last year from most of the parties that had backed his coalition--had decisively won its first electoral contest. "Whoever says that the counterrevolution won...if you want to fall for lies, go ahead and fall for lies," Chávez said, declaring that the election "has been a great victory for the revolutionary forces."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez casts a ballot in a December 2007 vote
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez casts a ballot in a December 2007 vote (Wilson Dias | ABr)

Certainly the opposition's gains were markedly lower than what was predicted by opinion polls earlier this year that anticipated 10 governor's posts for the right. The high turnout of 65.45 percent benefited the PSUV, which increased its vote compared to last December's constitutional referendum, for a total of 5.4 million. The elections chose 22 governors, 328 mayors and 225 representatives of legislative electoral councils.

Nevertheless, the opposition has mounted a comeback over the last year, starting with the defeat of the constitutional referendum, which would have instituted social reforms and concentrated more power in the presidency.

Although it had been largely discredited by its role in the failed 2002 U.S.-backed coup against Chávez, the opposition has in recent months undergone a makeover. The key to this new image was the rise of a conservative--and violent--middle-class student movement that took up the banner of "democracy," as well the support of some moderate figures who had defected from the Chávez camp.

The U.S. oversaw this effort to refurbish the opposition--and help pay for it. According to investigator Eva Golinger, the U.S. Agency for International Development poured $4.7 million into opposition groups for the electoral campaign.

But an improved image for the right and continued U.S. interference doesn't fully explain the opposition's gains. If the right could make some headway, it's because of the continued problems of inflation, uncontrolled crime and the shortage of secure, long-term jobs in spite of an unemployment rate of 7.2 percent, the lowest in 30 years.

The mass of Venezuela's poor and working class have benefited from a series of sweeping reforms, including access to health care and education, land reform, affirmative action for indigenous peoples and dramatic reductions in poverty. Revenues from the state oil company PDVSA funded much of these changes. Moreover, recent nationalizations of the steel, cement and other industries reflect further government attempts to steer Venezuela's economy towards meeting social needs.

Yet at the same time, wealth remains concentrated in the hands of the wealthy oligarchy, and the rich and the upper middle class have benefited most from Venezuela's rapid, oil-driven growth in recent years, even as inflation puts constant pressure on working-class living standards. The economy therefore has provided a focus for the opposition's agitation against the government.

This set the stage for some serious losses for the Chavistas. The mayor's post in greater Caracas went to oppositionist Antonio Ledezma of the Brave Peoples' Alliance, who held the post when it was an appointed position in the early 1990s.

"Ledezma is considered to be an integral part of the country's old political guard, given his ties to former President Carlos Andrés Perez," wrote Gregory Wilpert of Venezuelanalysis.com. The defeated Chavista candidate was former education minister Aristóbulo Isturiz, one of Venezuela's best-known politicians of African descent.

ACCORDING TO Gonzalo Gómez of the Marea Socialista collective in the PSUV, the unevenness of the left's strength in different parts of the city opened the door to the opposition:

In Catia, my electoral district to the west of Caracas, we won in large voting centers where we had previously lost, but the number of votes was not sufficient to counteract the right in the upper-class neighborhoods in Caracas, such as the municipalities of Baruta, El Hatillo and Chacao.

The left, both inside and outside the PSUV, must take advantage of the opportunity these results give us to confront the endogenous right (right-wingers and businessmen who claim to be Chavistas) even more forcefully while we debate the results as well their causes and meaning.

The pro-Chávez far left is viewing these results soberly, but many militants see an opportunity as well. Martín Sánchez, the consul general of Venezuela in San Francisco, put it this way:

The results in some regions can be used as an opportunity to purge the ranks of opportunists and corrupt local leaders--as a way for the leadership of the PSUV to reflect on the need to allow a new layer of young leaders to gain more prominent roles, and more importantly, as an excellent opportunity to accelerate the transfer of power to the communities.

Organizations such as the Communal Councils will be able to challenge local mayors and governors in a more frontal way, divert more power away from those local leaders, and bring the concept of communal power closer to reality.

The phrase "communal power" refers to efforts by the Chávez government to promote new forms of local organization to give power to grassroots movements and organizations.

Such changes would have been given constitutional force if last year's referendum had passed. But a law passed earlier this year mandates that the national and state governments allocate funds to the communal councils, and social movements and the left have continued to press for such changes at the local level. Now, activists hope to use this new law to further popular participation in local communities.

One laboratory for communal power could be Libertador, the poorest and most populous of Caracas' five municipalities. There, former vice president and PSUV leader Jorge Rodríguez won election as mayor, despite dissatisfaction with the incumbent Chavista mayor, Freddy Bernal.

Opposition victories will complicate efforts to build communal power, however. In Sucre, one of the four municipalities that comprises Greater Caracas, the opposition candidate, Carlos Ocariz, won with 55.7 percent of the vote. He defeated Jesse Chacón, one of the most high-profile Chavista politicians in the country.

Chacón has been minister of the departments of Justice, Interior, Telecommunications and Communications and is widely seen as competent. But discontent over the poor performance of the incumbent Chavista mayor led to Chacón's defeat, as the middle class sections of the area mobilized to vote, while turnout among workers and the poor was lower.

ANOTHER BIG loss for the government came in the important state of Miranda that surrounds Caracas.

There, the incumbent governor, Diosdado Cabello, was ousted by Henrique Capriles Radonski, a notorious right-winger implicated in a violent attack on the Cuban embassy during the failed U.S.-backed coup of April 2002. Cabello has long been accused by the left of corruption, and is seen by many activists as the symbol of a right wing, pro-business faction within the Chavista camp.

The high profile of figures like Cabello undermined the PSUV's electoral appeal and gave the right a major opportunity, said Gonzalo Gómez:

I think the results are bad because of the importance of the strategic spaces won by the opposition. However, now we are going to confront the enemy (bureaucratic, corrupt and supposedly socialist opportunist governments) without any cushion to soften the shock. And there are no reasons for the rank and file groups to abstain from confronting the mayors or governors who might not want to transfer power to the people, be they from the opposition or pro-Chavez.

The left-wing critique that some rank-and-file activists have made puts us in a good position in the debates that are to come.

Now a new opposition offensive will be on its way, even though at first they are going to say that they ought to have respectful relations with the government, or other such stupidities. It is necessary to insist on putting forward communal power in Caracas and to confront the new mayor, Antonio Ledezma...

The slogan now is: Clean out corruption and more revolution! Push for communal power and for a socialist Caracas!

The left's push for socialism coincides with the worsening world economic crisis. With the dramatic fall in the price of oil, the economy will slow and set the stage for even sharper clashes between the left and the right.

Thus, the left is preparing to sharpen the debate within the Chavista movement, which embraces everything from the revolutionary left to moderate reformists under the banner of Bolivarianism, named for South America's 19th-century independence leader, Simon Bolívar.

"Numerically, the total number of states won by Chavismo is high, but strategically, the loss of two bastions like Caracas and Miranda is a hard blow to the government of the Bolivarian process," wrote Diana Cordero of the Insurrectasypunto.org, the Web site of a leftist lesbian-feminist collective Josefa Camejo.

"If the results show well enough that Chavismo has consolidated itself as the first force in the country, tomorrow morning, we must analyze very carefully the causes of these two defeats."

Todd Chretien contributed to this article.

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