'It pays to vote': Behind the Venezuelan opposition's victory in Chavismo's cradle

The joy was palpable in every corner of his city on Monday, said José Robles.

“We’ve waited a long time for this. The elections put smiles on people’s faces,” he said in Barinas, home state of the late Hugo Chávez, leader of the “Bolivarian Revolution” that led Venezuela to socialism.

On Sunday, opposition candidate Sergio Garrido won the regional elections in Barinas and became the first governor of this entity, which since 1998 has not belonged to either the Chávez family or the ruling political movement.

Although the ruling party won elections in November in 19 of the country’s 23 states, fighting to win the special elections in Barinas became a matter of honor for President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

It was also a test case for the opposition, whose strategy emphasized a local and unified message that could herald what can be achieved in future elections.

“We are proof that votes count. The people of Barinas democratically accepted the challenge and now we are a state of hope for Venezuela,” Garrido said in an exclusive interview with Noticias Telemundo. “We must not be afraid because together we can overcome adversity.”

According to experts, there were certain factors that contributed to Garrido’s victory.

Why is Barinas so important to Chavismo?

Since 1998, this state has been governed only by Chávez’s relatives: his father, Hugo de los Reyes, was governor for three electoral cycles, and then he was succeeded by Chávez’s brothers – Adán Chávez, the current Venezuelan ambassador to Cuba, and Argenis Chavez.

“I am 30 years old and have lived under Chavismo for 22 years. I don’t know anything else,” Robles said. “But the emotion that prevails in the city is incomparable. I had never seen it before.”

Garrido’s victory confirms voters’ desire for change: in November’s elections, opposition candidate Freddy Superlano defeated Argenis Chávez by a narrow margin of less than a percentage point.

At the time, the country’s Supreme Court reversed the result and disqualified Superlano – an action that was not clearly explained – and ordered snap elections that resulted in an opposition victory on Sunday.

Garrido defeated former Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, Hugo Chávez’s son-in-law and father of his first grandson. Maduro’s top officials took part in Arreaza’s election campaign, demonstrating the enormous importance of Barinas as the symbolic capital of Chavismo and socialist government.

“Barinas is Chávez. It is our stronghold…where we win with one voice, we will defend it no matter what the whole world says,” said Diosdado Cabello, the ruling party’s first vice president, on November 28.

However, Chavismo not only lost in Barinas, the opposition also significantly increased their lead: from less than 1 percent of the vote in November to 14 percentage points on Sunday.

Combating several irregularities

Shortly after being disqualified from running, Superlano announced that his wife, Aurora Silva, would run for governor. But the Supreme Court said she couldn’t either. The same happened to Julio César Reyes, another candidate for the position. That opened the way for Garrido, who had previously voted in local elections as a councillor.

“The imposition of Arreaza’s candidacy reinforced the notion that this was a Chávez stronghold that had to be preserved at all costs,” said María Puerta Riera, professor of political science at Valencia College in Florida. “Paradoxically, that empowered Garrido as someone else, a new option unrelated to Chávez, and people decided to vote for him.”

In a preliminary statement, the European Union Observer Mission present at the regional elections highlighted the “structural flaws” that persist in Venezuela’s elections.

The observers denounced the “widely criticized court decisions that have affected the equality of conditions” and other measures such as “the arbitrary political exclusion of opposition candidates, the widespread use of state resources in election campaigns and unequal access to the media”.

For the political scientist Piero Trepiccione, the elections showed the strength of the regrouping of opposition movements and civil society.

“It was a concentration of opposition forces that put egos aside and made a collective effort to capitalize on popular discontent. One of the big messages of the election is that voting still works,” Trepiccione said.

“Tired of the Revolution”

The candidates campaigned for five weeks, and as the elections approached, Maduro’s government worked hard to promote Arreaza’s candidacy.

High-ranking officials such as Diosdado Cabello, considered the second ruler after Maduro, and figures not usually represented in regional elections, such as María Gabriela and Rosinés Chávez, daughters of the Venezuelan leader, were also in Barinas for various campaign events.

The government also militarized the city and provided the state with fuel fleets, water trucks and domestic propane gas — all things that have been in short supply for months.

“All of this showed that they could always solve our problems but never wanted to,” said Yanny González, a 50-year-old nurse. “We went to the polls angry because we are fed up with the revolution.”

The use of public buildings, vehicles and government facilities for campaigning has been widely denounced by opposition leaders and some electoral authorities.

Experts see a maturing of the Venezuelan electorate as a fundamental element of the opposition’s recent election victory.

“Referring to Chávez is no longer enough to win votes. Increasingly, people are demanding real solutions to the terrible conditions they face in their daily lives,” said Geoff Ramsey, director for Venezuela at the Washington Office for Latin America. or WOLA, a human rights organization.

In November, Venezuela ended four straight years of hyperinflation that has pulverized Venezuelans’ salaries. The government ordered another currency changeover — the third in 13 years — removing six zeros from the value of its currency, the bolivar.

Additionally Economy was dollarized, so it’s common for businesses to sell basic items at US dollar prices, making it more expensive for buyers.

González, the nurse, described how the economic situation and the shortage are affecting it. “We are treating patients with Covid without protection or necessary supplies,” she said. “Our general hospitals only have water three or four hours a day and sometimes the power goes out. It’s like a death sentence.”

Aside from the acute economic crisis and the erosion of civil and democratic liberties — which prompted the International Criminal Court to investigate the government — Venezuela has seen the collapse of its most basic services, such as electricity and drinking water, a growing problem in regions like Barinas.

Madurismo in the minority

Despite winning 19 governorships in November, multiple polls show that more than 80 percent of the population oppose current government policies.

However, as political scientist Carmen Beatriz Fernández pointed out in a recent article, the 20 percent who support the government “control 80 percent of the country’s institutions,” which explains the disadvantages for the opposition in most election campaigns.

For researchers like Colette Capriles, Chavismo’s historical moment and its electoral dominance has already passed, and now “it must adapt to this reality, leading to an intensification of tensions between those who believe that Chavismo is about to be recovered.” should dedicate to the lost majority, and to those who do believe that it is possible to continue to govern as a minority outside of any democratic rule.”

But Capriles warned that the government’s internal struggles will not necessarily lead to major changes.

“The eventual internal ruptures of Chavismo will not bring magical triumphs to the opposition,” she said. “In fact, the opposition lost at least ten governorships in the last election due to their own internal disputes.”

The key to electoral success

Capriles and other experts on Venezuelan politics attributed the opposition’s victory in Barinas to three factors: the willingness of opposition leaders to participate despite the imperfect rules of the electoral system and the ruling party’s advantages; the unity of the opposition parties around a single candidacy; and local political work of the state’s residents.

“It has shown that by mobilizing public opinion, you can reach out to a broad segment of the population who yearn for change, and that can win important electoral victories,” said Phil Gunson, analyst at the Crisis Group.

It is also significant that the losers in Sunday’s election were not solely on the Chavista side. Candidates who attempted to splinter the opposition’s votes were penalized by negligible percentages.

“The so-called minority opposition to the candidatures of Claudio Fermín and Adolfo Superlano was ridiculed,” Capriles said. “There is more good news from this election: it is possible to restore unity and heal the divisions that these parties have fostered.”

One of the consequences of the elections in Chávez’s home country could be the resumption of negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition.

Maduro would like to be able to communicate with countries that recognize the opposition as custodians of the country’s assets and that could influence the resumption of negotiations, Capriles said.

The Maduro government has already pushed ahead with legislative initiatives addressing issues discussed in talks in Mexico, such as the need for judicial reform.

“If the opposition could read the Barinas results well, they would have to resume their unified discussion and full support for negotiations, in addition to setting a credible agenda for joint negotiations with the government and recognizing that it is possible to start an agreed resumption . institutionalization process,” she said.

Recently, various government officials have warned Garrido, the governor-elect, that they will “protect” this state, leading many to fear that a parallel government could be installed (as has already happened in other regions where the opposition has won), who would be weakened their management, which has not even started.

“They had to accept the results because the lead was too big and people are very disillusioned,” Garrido said. “Now they come with threats, but I’m open to dialogue because we have to solve people’s problems. power is awkward; the important thing is to work for change.”

Meanwhile, Barinas residents like Robles and González are hoping for change.

“Even if we run out of fuel or they don’t send us food, we will continue here,” Robles said.

A previous version of this article was originally published in Noticias Telemundo.

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