Venezuela, Politics and the Art of the Possible

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Adrian Kane, Sector Organiser with SIPTU travelled to Venezuela as an observer during the recent Presidential Election. Here is his report:

The Chavistas started gathering in central Caracas from mid-afternoon on polling day, Sunday Oct 7. The polling stations were not due to close until after 6pm, but the largely young, red-clad supporters of Hugo Chavez were confident that their ‘commandante’ would be returned.  Above the blaring of the Latino rhythms, the cry from the streets that greeted the 2002 coup, ‘Chavez no se Va!, (Chavez isn’t going anywhere) could be heard. I was at a polling station in down-town Caracas as part of an international group of observers, monitoring the Presidential Election. The votes were breaking heavily in favour of Henrique Capriles Rodanski, (the United Opposition candidate) in the boxes from the middle class areas of Caracas but Chavez was ahead in the poorer parts, however, Capriles appeared to have made some in-roads in these areas as well. The key to who would ultimately win the presidency was the degree to which Capriles could eat into Chavez support amongst the urban and rural poor of Venezuela.

The Campaigns

The campaign run by Capriles was a much smarter campaign than that of the previous opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales, in 2006. Rosales campaign was viciously anti-Chavez; one newspaper I had witnessed on that occasion had a split page advertisement purporting to show the choice facing Venezuelan electors under the respective candidates; on the left was a picture of a family under a Chavez-led administration, dressed in military fatigues touting Kalashnikovs, on the right was a family sitting looking studiously at the monitor of a lap-top, a virtual picture of familial bliss. In this election Capriles ran on a centre-left platform. He acknowledged some of the successes under the Chavez presidency, such as poverty been cut by half and extreme poverty by 70%, huge increases in access to health and education for the poor. He promised, however, to integrate ‘the mission model’ for the delivery of social services into the mainstream public service. He promised more industrial development and the end of the oil-for-doctors programme with Cuba, advocating the training of Venezuelan doctors instead. His campaign slogans were more subtle also; Hay un Camino (There is a Way) and ‘14 years is enough’ were prominent on most of his posters and political advertisements.

Chavez was largely standing on his record. Venezuela had recovered more quickly than most economies after the crash in 2008 and its economy had been growing steadily now for over two and a half years. There had been significant progress in relation to the delivery of social housing. Caracas has a population of approx. 8 million, a significant proportion of whom live in Barrios, or what we would call shanty towns. Chavez had over the last 6 years re-housed significant numbers of Barrio dwellers in good quality social housing. There is, however, still an enormous task facing the administration in this regard such is the scale of the problem. Chavez had also established strong economic links with China and more importantly with the rest of South America. His Achilles heal, however, was the level of crime and more specifically the murder rate which has unfortunately continue to rise under his watch.  Inflation was also a problem which had also risen steeply in the last decade but had abated somewhat in recent months.

The Electoral Process

Electioneering in Venezuela is a passionate affair. All the senses are engaged. The Chavez rallies are ablaze of red. On Election-day itself you are roused from your slumbers from 4 in the morning by the Chavistas traversing Caracas in pick-up trucks blaring out campaign songs from booming sound-systems urging their voters to get out to the polls. People queue for hours outside polling stations as the smells from street vendors’ stalls tempt the stomachs of the weary electors under an intense tropical sun.
The Venezuelan electoral system is very impressive. Huge sums have been invested in what is objectively one of the most efficient and transparent electoral systems in the world. It is an electronic voting process with a paper verification system which ensures that the system is fraud-proof. The ordinary voters are incredibly proud of the process. I had the opportunity to talk with several voters on polling day and there was a genuine sense of pride in the electoral process and the level of participation by the populace. By the end of the day over 80% of all eligible voters would have cast their votes throughout the country. At a meeting on Friday Oct 5 with Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, National Coordinator of the Caprilles campaign, he informed the international observers that The Movement for Democratic Unity (MUD) had used the National Electoral Council (CNE) to conduct its own primary elections. He believed that the elections would be free but criticised the monopolisation of the state media by the Chavez administration. My overall impression was that the election was free, transparent and the system itself was indeed fraud-proof.

The final result was announced at just after 10pm, on Sunday evening at the CNE Headquarters in Caracas. Chavez won convincingly by an 11% margin on a final poll of 55.25% with Capriles at a credible 44.13%. Caprilles had eaten into Chavez vote but not to such a degree as to trouble him. Chavez had won 63% of the popular vote in 2006, but while his overall percentage was down it was, by any objective analysis, an impressive victory.

Where To Now?

The question on most peoples’ minds in the immediate aftermath of the election was where to now? At his post-election rally Chavez reached out to the opposition and for his part Caprilles immediately accepted his defeat in a dignified manner.

Undoubtedly Venezuela is a very polarized society. This, on the one hand, allows Chavez the ability to push through radical change. He nationalised the cement industry recently because they were ripping off the Government’s social housing programme. The rigidities of modern states melt away in the wake of the Bolivarian Revolution. Chavez has been able to radically transform the fortunes of the poor through delivering health and education services via a parallel system to the official state apparatus. The establishment of Missions particularly in education and health was a hallmark of the Bolivarian Revolution. This system was adopted because it was not possible to serve the needs of the vast majority of Venezuelan citizens such were the entrenched interests in the public service. Indeed there are parallels between the Bolivarian Revolution and the period between 1918 and 1922 in our own history, when an effective parallel administration was established bypassing the official British Imperial state. This mission system and its relationship with the official state mechanism now needs to be addressed. Certainly there are rumours of the Barrio Adentro missions having difficulties in maintaining services to the poor. These are difficult decisions; much of the success and momentum of the revolution has been about the manner in which ‘the state’, acting as an enabler, has facilitated local community initiatives. The state has not been prescriptive. It has rather provided the resources for local initiatives. The difficulty is accountability and the official parallel system of public administration. Practical solutions will have to be found to marry efficiency and democratic control of public services.

Politics has long been described as ‘the art of the possible’. In Europe there has been a rush to the centre by most political parties. The economic orthodoxy of neo-liberalism frames political discourse. It has become virtually impossible to imagine alternatives through this destructive hegemony. In Venezuela one gets the feeling that ‘things’ are possible, but the corollary of this is, that ‘things’ are only possible because Chavez has abandoned the possibility of ever bringing the middle classes with him. In truth I think it would be. However, what does need to be addressed urgently is the building of inclusive public spaces for dialogue for all the citizens of Venezuela. The entire media is polarized. The publicly-owned support Chavez, the privately-owned viciously oppose him. There is literally no centre for the opposing sides to talk to each other. In order for the Bolivarian Revolution to maintain its momentum the building of an inclusive public realm that provides an interface for alternative political visions must be a priority for President Chavez third term.

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