Monday, November 24, 2008

The Next Day

While I slept, the National Electoral Council announced that Carabobo and Táricha went to the opposition. If you’ve read the NYTimes triumphalist take on it, then you already know that this effectively means that the opposition won the major population centers in Venezuela. Overall, the PSUV took roughly 5,300,000 votes while the opposition won about 4,000,000 – which is a few hundred thousand less than they garnered in the 2007 constitutional referendum.

All told, Chavistas now control 17 states, and the opposition 6.

Venezuela Before

Venezuela After (note the ‘media luna’ in the West to which I referred last entry)

So, what does this mean? The major surprise of the day was clearly the lost of Aristobúlo Istúriz, who was seen not only as a ‘candidate for everyone,’ but was a fairly decent Chavista. His loss really needs to be chalked up to the utter failure of Juan Barreto, the current Alcaldía Mayor. Though Barreto is popular in many sectors of Caracas, many others think he took the money that should have been spent on the city’s roads, schools and security and inhaled it nasally through gold plated million dollar bills. The fact that Caracas still ranks among the world’s murder capitals and that its infrastructure remains insufficient for its population meant any Chavista candidate would have a lot of explaining to do in his or her campaign. But no one – not even Antonio Ledezma, the opposition candidate himself – thought the PSUV would lose in Caracas, and certainly not by a 7.5 point margin.

The next few days will of course be filled with reflection and self-criticism on the part of PSUV militants and directors, as they should be. The loss of Caracas is huge, but not the end of the world. Zulia and Carabobo were always going to be difficult. The danger in the latter case is that, knowing Carabobo was going to be a rough fight, the PSUV opted to run Mario Silva, host of Venezuela Television’s ‘La Hojilla’ (The Razorblade). Silva and ‘La Hojilla’ (in which Silva and guests mock, debunk and threaten the opposition) are popular amongst hardline Chavistas, and to say the least, he is a divisive character – loved by militants, loathed by the middle class and the opposition. The hope, I assume, was that Silva the firebrand would be able to mobilize more of the base than he would alienate the ‘ni-ni’ crowd, especially considering the fact that his opponent was a mafioso. That obviously failed, though it is worth noting that the ostensible PSUV vote was split between Silva and outgoing governor Luis Acosta, who was expelled from the party and ran as an independent. With the votes that went to Acosta, Silva would have carried the day.

The failure of this strategy could strengthen the hand of conservative Chavistas, adding punctuation to their calls for moderation and dialogue.

Chavistas will be happy that they were able to mobilize more than a million more voters than they were able to last December (this is still, predictably, less than turned out for Chávez’s reelection in 2006). In Chávez’s words at last night’s press conference, “This was the first trial by fire for the PSUV, and we triumphed.”

This was Venezuela’s 12th election since Chávez took office, and the second moment in which Chávez had to acknowledge gains made by the opposition. Playing the president, he congratulated the victorious opposition candidates, and asked them to do what is right for Venezuela and not “fall back” into their old, anti-democratic and oligarchic ways. Holding up a copy of the constitution, he asked who could still call Venezuela a dictatorship.

Noting the distinctly red hue of the Venezuelan map, he repeated his call for a ‘Revolution within the Revolution’ and a deepening of the democratic process in Venezuela.

The PSUV’s vicepresident, Alberto Müller Rojas, also congratulated opposition victors, but remained militant. When a reporter from Globovisión – a virulently anti-Chávez news network – asked how the government would deal with the overwhelming victory (!) of the opposition, and if it would be willing to dialogue with opposition governors, he had to quiet down the ire PSUVistas in attendance. He then responded, “Of course we’ll work with them. But this is not a dialogue, this is a debate, and it will be a polemic. Venezuela will never go back to the way it was in the 1980s and 1990s. It will be a debate because we have very different visions for Venezuela, we have very different visions for Latin America, for the world, and for humanity.”

However, the opposition most likely won’t show up to the party – their only platform is anti-Chavismo. In the debate between socialism – however defined – and neoliberal capitalism – which is their fundamental goal – they know they will always lose amongst the majority of Venezuelans. They tend to copy Chavista social programs, as I’ve written on before in this blog, and run on ‘quality of life’ issues foreign to the majority of Venezuelans.

The following months are most likely going to present some rather difficult choices for the Bolivarian Revolution. Declining world market prices in oil and the intensifying global economic crisis will negatively impact the government’s ability to fund its social programs without radically altering the fundamental class structures and distribution of wealth in Venezuela. Inflated oil prices throughout the past 10 years have allowed the government to democratize consumption without any sort of corresponding social revolution or transformation. That is to say while rich have retained the overall percentage of income in Venezuela throughout the Bolivarian Revolution’s various phases – they have in no way been expropriated – the poor majority of Venezuelans have seen their share of the national wealth increase in terms of purchasing power and social programs. The days of this political luxury may be nearing their end.

The choice for the government in the face of this situation will be one of who to choose. With less money, they will have to decide in which direction to redistribute wealth.

Opposition governors in control of the key money making sectors of Venezuela – Caracas, Carabobo and Zulia – is a practical obstacle, but perhaps a strategic benefit. In the first case, state level positions are powerful in Venezuela, and can allow the opposition to block government attempts to channel oil money to the poor or to take over factories. At the same time, an obvious enemy is a good thing, especially now that He™ will be replacing Bush in 2 months. Opposition sabotage will only further mobilize and more deeply commit the base of the PSUV. One can only hope that the leadership of the party will be up to the challenge.

See also:

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