Assessing Venezuela’s Elections: The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

December 15, 2015 at 2:30 PM

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The streets of Caracas were eerily quiet late Sunday evening (December 6) as the city, and indeed the whole of Venezuela, anxiously awaited the results of the critical legislative elections. Everyone knew the vote would be close: the polls had indicated as much in the weeks leading up to the elections, with many experts predicting a victory for the right wing opposition party Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

Traveling throughout the capital, and especially in the poor and working class neighborhoods, however, the mood was optimistic, with most Chavistas fully expecting to carry the day and maintain their control of the National Assembly. In the 23 January neighborhood, a stronghold of the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) and a hotbed of radical activism and resistance, local party and community leaders were upbeat as they showed me around, pointing out the gains made in the years of Chavista rule: every house now having a cooking gas connection, improved sewage systems, guaranteed government pensions, low-cost government housing, among many other tangible gains.

In El Valle, another solidly red working class district, I visited two of the many punto rojos (red points) – Socialist Party tents manned by volunteers who helped organize voter turnout for their respective neighborhoods – where the mood was festive, something between a block party and a local community meeting. The punto rojos, interestingly enough, were almost always opposite from MUD tents (a recent phenomenon as the right wing opposition has adopted the PSUV organizing strategy), and all was peaceful and quiet, no confrontations to be seen. Indeed, it seemed everywhere I went that these elections were a model of a peaceful democratic process, precisely what Venezuela’s government has long prided itself on, and precisely what the western media has always denied.

After having met with a number of community leaders, including PSUV candidate Jesús Faría who welcomed me with a handshake and a hug, thanking me for coming to his country to watch democracy in action, I went (along with my delegation from the US) to Tiuna el Fuerte, a cultural center and communal outdoor meeting space financially supported by the Venezuelan government. With intricate graffiti murals adorning the walls of shipping containers transformed into living quarters, computer labs, and other important resources, Tiuna el Fuerte looked like something out of hipster Brooklyn or Oakland, a meeting space where hip hop and reggae music blared from the speakers, and sancocho (a traditional soup dish) was ladled into bowls for anyone who wanted it.

But as I sat voraciously devouring the delicious sancocho, gazing calmly at the trees and public housing buildings across the dusty street, it was immediately clear that there was a tension in the air, an unease somehow palpable in the cautious movements and facial expressions of the twenty- and thirty-somethings in charge of this cultural center. It was obvious that these people were nervous, that they had a sense that all was not well. The television around which everyone gathered flashed images from around the country, showing polling places still open well into the evening as voters waited in lines to cast their ballots. Text and WhatsApp messages went back and forth like electrical signals shot by digital neurotransmitters across the synapses of a collective Chavista brain. These people were worried, and now so was I.

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?

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