Chávez Wins Again

Venezuelans continue to support socialist leader despite corruption fears

Steve Ellner

On Nov. 23, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (center) waves to supporters in Caracas before entering a polling station to vote in the state and municipal elections.

CARACAS, Venezuela – The results of the Nov. 23 state-municipal elections dashed the opposition’s hopes that Venezuela has become fed up with President Hugo Chávez. Chávez’s United Socialist Party (PSUV) took 17 of the nation’s 22 governorships, 80 percent of the mayoral posts and all but three state legislatures. The achievement of an absolute majority of the popular vote by the Chavistas – or Chávez supporters – after 10 years in power is impressive. It shows that the president has found the formula for maintaining high levels of popularity over an extended period of time.

In another plus for the Chavistas, voter turnout surpassed 65 percent – 20 percentage points higher than the last state-municipal election in 2004. Such participation helps debunk the claim that Chávez is installing an authoritarian regime.

However, it wasn’t all good news for the Chavistas. Opposition leaders and some of the media highlighted Chávez defeats in Miranda, Zulia, Carabobo, the nation’s most populated states, as well as in the capital city of Caracas. The losses might force Chávez to slow down the pace of change and force the PSUV to analyze its errors. 

Chávez was first elected president in 1998. The Chavistas won all 10 local, state and national elections held between then and December 2007 – when his proposed 69-article constitutional reform was defeated in a national referendum. Chávez’s far-reaching changes during this decade include nationalization of strategic sectors of the economy, increased spending for the poor, closer relations with Russia and China at the expense of U.S. ties, and a hard line within OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The broader focus

From the election’s outset, national – and even international – issues overshadowed local ones. In September, Chávez expelled the U.S. ambassador in solidarity with Bolivian President Evo Morales, who had done the same the previous day, as a way to protest intervention in internal affairs. Chávez also announced that security forces had just uncovered an assassination plot against him.

But the opposition showed little sympathy for Chávez. On Nov. 18, the secretary general of Un Nuevo Tiempo party (UNT), Gerardo Blyde, who was elected mayor of Caracas’ municipality of Baruta, chided Chávez for turning the race into a plebiscite over his rule.” Blyde added that Chávez’s obsession that someone is trying to kill him diverts attention from the dreadful performance of his local elected officials.” 

Intentional or not, Chávez had good reason to focus attention on broader national issues and away from the local arena. His popularity far surpasses that of the leading politicians of his movement. 

Chávez’s hyperactive role was also designed to make clear to his followers the party loyalties of individual candidates. In the states of Barinas, Carabobo and Guárico – as well as the cities of Barcelona, Caracas and elsewhere – candidates for mayor and governor who had not been chosen to run on the Chavista ticket defected from Chávez’s movement. Chávez called the pro-Chavista Communist Party and the Homeland for All Party (PPT) counterrevolutionary” because they divided the vote by running their own candidates in various states. 

Chávez warned that the opposition would use any space gained in the elections as a staging ground to mobilize the population against his rule. Indeed, the clashes and shooting of innocent people that led to the short-lived 2002 coup against Chávez was made possible by the opposition’s control of the mayoral government of Caracas. 

Chávez’s followers now fear that the surprising triumph of the zealously anti-Chavista Antonio Ledezma in the mayoral elections of metropolitan Caracas, which includes the capital’s six municipalities, may undermine stability. Ledezma, who received 52 percent of the vote, defeated the Chavista politician Aristobulo Istúriz. 

The stakes of the electoral contests were high for another reason. Had the opposition made greater inroads, it would have been well positioned to campaign for a recall election against Chávez. At the same time, the Chavista governor of the state of Anzoátegui, Tarek William Saab, declared at a September rally kicking off his re-election campaign: Our victories throughout the state and the nation will be stepping stones to the passage of a constitutional amendment allowing Chávez to re-run for office.” One week after the election, Chávez announced his intention to modify the constitution to allow him to seek another term in 2012.

Failures at the local level 

During the campaign, the opposition seized on the Chávez government’s inefficiency and failure to solve problems at the local level – ranging from deficient garbage collection to the poor quality of public works to crime. Pompeyo Márquez, a former Communist leader who has emerged as an opposition spokesman, attacked Chávez’s socialist model” as unviable and argued that it employs obsolete categories, such as improvised state-takeovers, centralism and communal arrangements.” He went on to tell opposition candidates to prepare to govern with efficacy and orderliness.” 

In this sense, Chávez’s rule differs from leftist-run municipal governments and trade unions in many parts of the world. The former Italian Communist Party’s message during the several decades it controlled Rome and other city governments was essentially, Regardless of what you think of our ideology, we do a better job than our opponents in keeping the streets clean.”

In contrast, many Venezuelans who are attracted to Chávez’s lofty ideals, nationalist rhetoric and social concerns chafe at some of the concrete results of his rule. Between 70 and 80 percent of Venezuelans consider lack of personal security their major concern, a problem that became critical two decades ago and has grown worse. According to criminologist Alexis Romero, the increase in violent crimes over the recent past has far surpassed that of nonviolent felonies. 

These downsides may be inevitable given Chávez’s experimental road to change (See The Trial (And Errors) of Hugo Chávez,” September 2007). One reason for the administrative snags is that the government inherited a state bureaucracy staffed by many people who are adamantly opposed to the radical changes under way. The public administration is now filled with Chavista loyalists, some of whom lack experience. 

A number of Chavista leaders attribute electrical power failures, food shortages and poor administrative performance to intentional sluggishness among employees belonging to the opposition and sabotage. Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal observed, Each time we are nearing elections, there is an operation slowdown’ of garbage collection.” 

The opposition considers such accusations a cover-up for incompetence. But given the shortages and alleged sabotage during the attempt to oust Chávez in 2002 and 2003, and the expressions of contempt and animosity toward the government routinely conveyed by members of the opposition, Bernal’s allegation is not farfetched. Nevertheless, the problem does not speak well for the efficiency and administrative capacity of the Chavistas.

Many Venezuelans are attracted to Chávez’s lofty ideals, nationalist rhetoric and social concerns, but they are beginning to chafe at some of the concrete results of his rule.
Priorities and tradeoffs

The opposition’s claim that Chávez reduced the elections to a referendum over his own popularity misses the point. The president’s social programs, which local Chavista candidates ardently supported and which municipal and state governments help finance, heavily influenced voters’ preferences.

The social programs – such as education, healthcare and food distribution, which are referred to as missions” – reach out to millions of the underprivileged and operate at a fraction of the cost of the same services provided elsewhere. Voters back these programs, even though in some cases they sacrifice quality in favor of quantity. Lina Gfeller, who is a principal in one of the education missions” in the eastern city of Barcelona, says the enormous popularity of the missions, even among some middle-class people, shows how much support there is for the proposition that education and health should be free and open to all.”

A makeshift university program called Sucre Mission” offers evening courses in public schools throughout the country. Lacking library facilities, few teachers assign reading from books, so students of all majors carry out assignments in the community, such as designing public works projects that are then used to apply for grants. For the first time since it was founded in 2003, 30,000 Sucre Mission students were awarded university diplomas in 2008, while 100,000 receive small stipends to help them continue their studies.

Chavista candidates hail this program along with the other missions,” such as the literacy campaign for the nation’s 1.5 million illiterates and the Ribas Mission for adult high school students. Caracas candidate and former Education Minister Aristobulo Istúriz, speaking with the president of the Ribas Mission at a student graduation ceremony at the outset of the campaign, stated: Each one of these graduations constitutes an important event for the revolution; they highlight universalization of rights.”

The most recent and innovative program injects state money into community councils, which design and execute their own public works projects. Twenty-seven thousand councils have sprung up over the last three years mainly among non-privileged sectors of the population. Common priority projects, which are ratified in neighborhood assemblies, include the construction of roads, sidewalks, community houses and family housing. The community councils insist that companies contracted for these projects employ residents of the same neighborhood when possible. 

In September 2007, Chávez decreed federal matching funds for all municipal and gubernatorial grants for community council projects. From a cost-benefit perspective, the program is open to criticism. The money allotted could undoubtedly reap better immediate results in the hands of private contractors. But the councils promote the Chavista goal of popular participation in decision- making.

Has the opposition evolved?

Public opinion surveys indicate that social programs are the most popular feature of Chávez’s rule. This popularity has undoubtedly influenced some opposition leaders to pledge themselves to continue the missions. Manuel Rosales, who had run against Chávez in the 2006 presidential elections – and who was elected mayor of Maracaibo this time around – assured mission students that their stipends of about $100 U.S. per month would not be endangered. Nevertheless, several years ago the pro-opposition Medical Federation of Venezuela went to the courts in an attempt to expel from the country the 15,000 Cuban doctors who staff much of the health mission program.

During the campaign, opposition leaders made a concerted effort to focus on local problems and avoid incessant references to Chávez. This strategy broke with the past when the opposition seemed obsessed with Chávez’s personality. In this respect, it has come a long way since 2002 to 2004, when it promoted a coup, an indefinite general strike and even street warfare. In 2005, it boycotted congressional elections and, in the weeks leading up to the 2007 referendum, some of its members shut down highways and threatened post-election insurgency. 

But opposition leaders continue to call Chávez authoritarian, to criticize all of his words and actions (the educational missions” being an exception), and to warn of the danger of Castro Communism. 

As has been the case since the outset of the Chávez presidency, the opposition still lacks a program that defines its strategy. It has yet to demonstrate how it would avoid a return to the misguided rule that preceded Chávez’s advent to power when corruption and social inequality intensified.

This failure may be a mixed blessing. It avoids infighting between the opposition’s parties – such as between Primero Justicia (Justice First), which supports explicitly conservative economic policies, and others that attempt to demonstrate greater concern for social problems. But unlike the Chavistas – who held primaries in which 2.5 million voters chose their candidates for governor and mayor – the opposition’s candidates were selected largely by political elites. Some opposition politicians objected to the unfair role played by TV magnate Alberto Federico Ravell of Globovision” in favor of the candidates of the UNT headed by Manuel Rosales and Gerardo Blyde.

What’s ahead?

Since assuming power in 1998, Chávez has followed electoral victories by implementing popular, radical measures. This time, however, his triumph was less than absolute and he is now subject to financial restraints as a result of falling oil prices. 

To maintain the momentum of his rule, Chávez could crack down on corrupt government officials, including Chavista ones. The Chavista rank and file – as well as the Venezuelan population – has long clamored for action along these lines. And during the campaign, Chávez threatened to purge his government and party of self-serving members. This is not the first time Chávez has announced these intentions. But history demonstrates that Venezuelans are less tolerant of corruption during periods of economic downturn, such as what the nation now faces, than in years of oil-induced bonanza. 

During the past 10 conflict-ridden years, Chávez’s bold initiatives in the aftermath of victories have never failed to invigorate his movement. The coming year is unlikely to be an exception.

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Steve Ellner, who began teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela in 1977, is currently an adjunct professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers).
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