by Eric Draitser
I did not come to Venezuela to be objective – I am a leftist and an anti-imperialist, a strong supporter of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution – but rather to bear witness to these elections and see Venezuela for myself, this country I have followed and defended vigorously as a bastion of resistance against global imperialism these last 17 years. I came to document the reality, but also to counter the corporate media’s propaganda: President Maduro as dictator, Venezuela as failed state, and other such lies and distortions peddled by the mouthpieces of neoliberal finance capital. I came to be part of this momentous election, and to tell its story.
And then it happened. The bombshell. The National Electoral Council (CNE), the impartial body that conducts the country’s elections, announced an overwhelming victory for the right wing opposition and the MUD. The wealthy and middle class neighborhoods of Caracas erupted in cheers and celebrations, while the poor and working class sections of the city seemingly went silent.
The country had taken a stunning turn to the right, an astonishing thing for the most left wing country in the western hemisphere. How could this have happened? What led to these incredible developments? And what might this mean for the future of the Bolivarian Republic and its revolution?
The Elections through Venezuelan Eyes
It would be rather easy to analyze the election results in purely political terms: inflation and economic war, corruption, the collapse of global oil prices, violent crime, a lack of responsiveness to the needs of the people from the ruling Socialist Party, and about a dozen other factors that played a role in bringing the pro-neoliberal, pro-US right wing to power in the National Assembly. Indeed, there is some value in doing so from a strictly objective and detached perspective. However this election, and the Bolivarian Revolution from its very inception, is (and has always been) about the Venezuelan people. And it is the Venezuelan people themselves who perhaps can provide the best insights into what exactly has happened here.
The morning after the election I rode the Caracas Metrocable system, a cable-propelled metro transit line that connects the working class community of San Agustín high up in the hills with the rest of city via cable cars traveling hundreds of meters above the ground, giving riders a breathtaking view of the city. The project, an initiative fully funded by the Venezuelan Government under Hugo Chávez, was designed to integrate San Agustín into the greater economy and provide the poor access to the city, while spurring development on both ends of the project. As such, the system is a visible and highly advanced testament to the grand-scale projects that Chávez’s government envisioned as part of the Bolivarian Revolutionary development process.
I had a chance to chat in one of the cars with a young woman from San Agustín, her purple, ink-stained pinky finger indicating that she had voted on Sunday. She explained that she had cast her vote for the Socialist Party because she remained loyal to Chávez and the government which gave her easy access to the city, as well as adequate, low-cost housing. But behind her polite smile was a clear current of outrage, anger at the fact that her neighborhood, which had benefitted so directly from government programs, had in fact gone to the opposition in the election. “Those of us who voted for MUD are either ignorant or ungrateful,” she explained, not mincing her words in describing many of her neighbors, friends, and even family. “They will soon realize what they have done.”
At the next station, a Venezuelan colleague, and leader of our US delegation, asked a young couple whether they had voted, indicating his own purple finger. “Of course,” was the reply, with the woman wildly gesticulating, not holding back her anger, “What the hell am I going to do now? How will I get an affordable apartment? How will I afford the basic necessities?” she raged, her frustration gushing from her like so many tears shed the night before.
Stepping off the cable-car, my Venezuelan friend pointed out a tall building next to the station, explaining that it’s a recreation complex recently constructed by the government. He noted that this building included a sports center, classrooms for young adult and adult education, a small market, and many other necessities for the people of the community. Touching his open palm to his forehead as if pained physically by the realization, he simply said “I have absolutely no idea what will happen to this place. The right wing will probably close it down because they couldn’t care less about the people who live here.”
Later that same afternoon, I headed down to the aptly named “Hot Corner,” an area just a few meters from the National Assembly building, where Venezuelans regularly congregate to discuss politics. There was a large crowd there, with Chavistas angrily denouncing the right wing, and expressing their unwavering support for El Comandante and the Revolution. One man cried directly into my camera “Chavez is in my heart, the Revolution is in my blood. They’ll have to spill my blood to take my Revolution.” The tears welling in his eyes, and in the eyes of many others in the crowd, were enough to move even the most detached observer. I myself had to hold back tears as I watched this man, among others, speak directly to me, knowing I was a gringo there for the election, trying desperately to show just what the Revolution meant to him, his family, his people, his country.
While there are countless stories like these from around Caracas, and indeed throughout the country, there undeniably are many who were either pleased with, or indifferent to, the election results.
I took a taxi through the mountains connecting Maracay to the coastal town of Choroní, the point of embarkation for the boats taking people to the isolated Afro-Venezuelan fishing village of Chuao. The driver (named Pedro) was a middle-aged, middle-class man who could barely contain his pleasure at seeing the Chavistas defeated.
“This government is incompetent and corrupt,” he said, adding that “they have messed up everything with their bad economic policies and stupid decisions.” When I pressed him further, asking about whether he thought that the collapse of global oil prices – a drop from a high of $140 per barrel to less than $40, amounting to a decrease of roughly 75% of revenue – had anything to do with the problems in Venezuela, he dismissed the notion with a casual wave of his hand. He equally dismissed the economic war waged against Venezuela which includes hyper-speculation, an informal embargo by foreign corporations and domestic private distributors on certain key consumer goods and staple foods, the illicit trafficking of goods along the Venezuela-Colombia border, and many other forms of deliberate economic destabilization.
“I can tell you’re a Chavista,” he half exclaimed, half chortled as we took another sharp turn around a blind curve roughly one thousand meters up the mountain. “Look,” he said, “I was trained in economics and I used to work for a bank, but since I am not a Chavista I cannot get a job and have had to work as a taxi driver and open a restaurant.” When I asked whether he really believed that things would get better under a neoliberal, pro-US party, Pedro answered unequivocally, “Yes. They will get rid of the price controls and the economy will stabilize.”
But when I probed further, noting that such a policy inevitably meant sharp price increases that would hurt the poor and working class disproportionately, he again waved his hand and said, “We’ll see. I think change will be good. As soon as the MUD is in office, the US will ease up and Venezuela will get back on its feet.” Naturally, my immediate response was, “But right there aren’t you admitting that the US is deliberately exacerbating these problems through a coordinated campaign of economic subversion?” to which Pedro looked at me in the back seat, grinned slyly, and said “Maybe so.”
Pedro’s story is not unique, though his perspective is more rigid than most. I encountered more than one Chavista whose frustration with the government left them utterly indifferent to the election, despite their love for El Comandante Chávez. One such man I met was Glen Martinez, the operator of Colectivo Radio 23, a collective and radio station in the working class 23 January neighborhood which had, until this election, always been strongly Chavista. With his partner holding him by the arm (Glen is blind) he explained that he was disillusioned with the government because of what he described as incompetence and inability to combat the violence and crime plaguing his neighborhood. “We have safe zones where children play…these are supposed to be protected and clear of all violence, but nobody enforces this.”
Glen continued by noting that his frustration with the government had led him to not be involved in this campaign for PSUV as he had been in all previous elections. “We – I speak for the collective – did not participate because we do not feel that the government has listened to the people enough.” I acknowledged the legitimacy of his many grievances, but had to ask him the basic question, “I get all that, but Glen, isn’t the Bolivarian government the reason you have this radio station and collective in the first place? Without the local Chavista government, you would not have had this space rehabilitated from an old chop-shop into a functioning radio station, community center, and brand new theater with a 500 person capacity, all with government funds…And about the fact that Venezuela is one of the countries in the vanguard of resistance to global imperialism? Doesn’t that mean something?” He responded, “That’s true. This is a very complicated matter. There are no easy answers.”
Glen and Pedro both illustrate a distorted and dangerous strain of thought among both non-participating Chavistas and opposition supporters: the belief that an opposition government will be unable to roll back the gains made under the Bolivarian government. Glen firmly believes that Colectivo Radio 23 will remain as is, and that a right wing, neoliberal capitalist government aligned with Washington will not move to shut it down, privatize the space, and destroy the infrastructure of independent power embedded in 23 January since Chávez’s initiatives were launched.
Like Glen, Pedro is committed to the idea that the sanctity of contracts and agreements will be honored by an MUD government. “It’s impossible for the new National Assembly to get rid of our free health care and education. There are agreements in place, promises that must be kept.” I warned him that such an assumption of benignity on the part of neoliberal reactionaries is not only wrong-headed, but frankly dangerous. I said this politely, of course.