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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Participation | Politics

Venezuela’s State Elections: When Winning Comes before Revolution

“We’ll deal with it when the state elections are over,” a comrade said to me.

“Ah, but then there’s the mayoral elections in April,” I replied.

Internal debate and criticism of the PSUV and its current state election campaign, as well as proper grassroots involvement would be put off, and put off, because in this incredibly democratic country there is always some kind of election coming up. Yet for how long will such sacrifices be made in the name of defeating the capitalist opposition?

Aram Aharonian, writing in Rebelion last week, was right when he argued that this Sunday’s state elections aren’t just “one election, they’re 23 different elections”, because each state has its own socio-economic characteristics and different types of candidates running  -from bureaucrats, to an indigenous minister, to the military, to the well known and the unknown. 

However, all of the 23 PSUV candidates were chosen by President Hugo Chavez and the national PSUV executive. The PSUV is a national “machine”, as we are prone to call it here, and despite some regional differences, its state campaigning has been conducted according to national lines and a national strategy. So, although this article will focus on experiences in Merida state, the problems discussed of treating PSUV members like voters rather than activists, of isolating political parties and movements that are not aligned to the PSUV and so on, are problems that are across the board, and though more pertinent in this election campaign, can be said to be general problems in the PSUV.

Chavez’s candidates

Not only one of the main election slogans, (here in Merida: “Alexis Ramirez, candidate of Chavez!”) the idea that the PSUV governor candidates are associated with, and chosen by Chavez is a key political strategy the PSUV has been using over the last few months.

It’s a stance that suggests the party leadership are unconfident their candidates have merit on their own, and also that the PSUV’s objectives of socialism, justice, economic and land reform and so on, have merits on their own. It’s a dependence on the guaranteed victory the character of Chavez brings, but it has also been used as a way to make the PSUV the only “real” Chavista party, and to delegitimise other revolutionary, pro-Chavez organisations and parties which haven’t dissolved into the PSUV, such as the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV), the Tupumaros movement, and even unions and the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP).

As a member of the PSUV national executive, and also head of the national assembly, Diosdado Cabello told the press yesterday, “Chavez has just one candidate in each state. We can’t impose any candidate on our allies, but what we ask of them is that they don’t say they are candidates of Chavez, because they aren’t.” He also made the exaggerated claim that “Socialist candidates [PSUV] will win in all 23 states on Sunday”.

The tactic aims at preventing a divided vote; as Chavez said before he left for Cuba on Sunday, “Unity, Unity, Unity”, yet it is a unity that excludes anyone who isn’t in the PSUV.

And then there is the big question of why, during a revolution, are these candidates Chavez’s candidates and not the people’s candidates? For Merida state, Chavez and the PSUV national executive, based far away in Caracas, picked the unknown Alexis Ramirez for the candidate for governor. Then they chose Rafael Ramirez, energy minister and president of PDVSA and not at all familiar with Merida; an agricultural state and not an oil one, in charge of the campaign. There was no consultation of PSUV membership. While perhaps primary elections are not the best road, since many registered members of the PSUV actually support the opposition, there was no reason not to call state wide meetings of the active membership of the PSUV and even other organisations, to both elect candidates and decide on campaigning platform, and strategy.

“Loyalty” to a person rather than to a program or to proposals

Two more words or slogans that have been thrown around a lot during the PSUV campaigning, both at the state and national levels, are “loyalty” and “discipline”.  Yet the discipline doesn’t refer to good, serious, revolutionary organisation, nor to waging a hard campaign, nor to combating bureaucracy and corruption, but rather to unquestioning support for the handpicked candidates.

Here in Merida, we were given Alexis Ramirez, a young geographer, a local legislator, who in the last five years I have never seen in any of the political marches or rallies or events, or even when Chavez spoke here a few weeks before the presidential elections. There is also evidence that Ramirez committed serious acts of corruption as a legislator, and it is felt that he is largely a puppet and that there will be other people behind the scenes, people we don’t know, governing for him.

One comrade said to me, “Those who don’t support Alexis [Ramirez], are called traitors...I have to be “loyal” to Chavez by lying to him and telling him his candidate is the best, no I can’t do that. This electoral campaign has been about persecution and fear”.

The comrade said he will vote for Florencio Porras, the candidate the PCV has put up. Porras, who was governor of Merida from 2000-2008 and is “revolutionary light”  (that is, a pro-Chavez reformist) will likely get a significant vote, though he won’t win.  PSUV members have stuck up posters around the city calling Porras a traitor. One poster has modified the PCV’s symbol, the red rooster, to be a rooster with crutches, labelled a “gallo cojo” or lame rooster,  a message that is disrespectful of people with disabilities. Another PSUV poster shows Lester Rodriguez, the opposition candidate, taking off a mask that is Porras’ face.

The PSUV communication committee has also posted graphics around Facebook with quips such as “You say you’re more revolutionary than me, but you’re campaigning for a candidate that’s not one of Chavez’s?” and “In battle, division is betrayal”.

Even though Chavez has gone to great pains to encourage and legitimise criticism and self-criticism and the denouncing of bureaucracy and corruption, clearly any PSUV bureaucrats hoping to be in power are not going to do the same.

The clubs of friends within the PSUV leadership

Unfortunately, for many of the PSUV’s candidates, winning the elections comes before real revolution (participation, grassroots organisation, transparency, accountability etc) because that is what is more important to them. They are using the PSUV to gain positions of power and money.

The blind “loyalty” and “discipline” they promote benefits them. Further, once PSUV members go along with such loyalty, refusing to criticise, they are then taken for granted and used by the PSUV bureaucracy, which will not feel pressured to listen to them.

In many revolutionary parties around the world, especially, but not exclusively in situations of repression, a kind of loyalty towards the leadership is called for. But it is conditional on active members electing that leadership, or in cases of repression, at least knowing and trusting that leadership. That is not the case here. In Merida we did not choose the regional leadership (nor the national one for that matter), we don’t know them, they never organise mass meetings with us, nor are they accountable or transparent in anyway. The communication committee puts out many press releases promoting the party, the government, and its achievements, which is good, but it never informs the membership of who its leadership is, why or how they were chosen, what decisions have been taken and why, or what the state of finances are.

Had we been able to choose our candidate (and our regional leadership), it is much more likely we would have chosen someone who is a true activist, and who we support and are willing to campaign for.  Of the 23 state candidates, it’s possible that in some cases we would have chosen the same candidate as the national executive – Elias Jaua, running in Miranda state for example, is well respected and trusted.  But the clubs of friends, the invisible power groups within the PSUV bureaucracy, who scheme and manoeuvre so that their own people are where they want them, would not support that.

One woman wrote on Alexis Ramirez’s Facebook page, “Alexis, I support Chavez all the way, but this time I won’t accept impositions because I don’t consider myself anyone’s sheep, and if today we accept this selection of you ... later we’ll be exposed to similar eventualities, so I don’t support you... let the PSUV know that the people shouldn’t be treated in such a way, with such threats”.

A few people have suggested that perhaps if the PSUV loses these elections in Merida, “they’ll learn”, yet this is not the first time they have made the mistake of hand picking regional candidates from far away Caracas. It is not in their interest to learn.

A choice: guarantee financial resources, or guarantee a process of participation

Another comrade, a member of my communal council, said to me, “We have to vote for Alexis [Ramirez] because we need to keep the government in power, so that we can guarantee [financial] resources for Merida”.

We’ve also all been receiving pro-Alexis campaign messages to our phones, one of which read, “Alexis is the guarantee of coordinated team work with the national government and local governments”.

Another young comrade, a public sector worker but also a dedicated fighter, argued that revolutionaries should vote for Alexis because, “It’s a very critical situation... we have to defend the process, we have spent so many decades in misery, we can’t make mistakes, we can’t go back to that”.

He made a very good point; it would be terrible if after twelve years of reformist, but pro-Chavez governors, Merida were to go to the opposition candidate, Lester Rodriguez, who supported the violent and armed opposition while he was rector of the University of Los Andes (ULA), among many other things. Yet how much should we sacrifice, in terms of debate and participation, supposedly in order to prevent the opposition coming into power? What are we defending exactly, if we’re campaigning for anti-worker politicians such as the PSUV’s candidate for Bolivar, Francisco Rangel? How will Alexis help the revolution deepen, if he’s not even accountable to the people?  He can guarantee financial resources from the national government, but he can’t guarantee participatory democracy.

As a group of us went visiting the neighbours in our community, talking to the youth to see if they would get involved in an alternative cultural activity, one young female comrade expressed her exasperation, “There is no revolution here... where is the popular power? They don’t listen to us, there’s no organisation”.

She was frustrated that day, and I think she knows that there is indeed a revolution, if a problematic one. The point is, even if having Alexis as governor guarantees that a certain amount of resources do get spent on the people rather than diverted towards underhanded things in the case of the opposition, under revolution that is more or less meaningless if the people aren’t listened to and don’t have a say on just where those resources go.

Alexis has talked very little about his government plans, should he be elected, but his proposal is available here. It’s based on the national socialist plan 2013-2019 that Chavez campaigned on, which means it’s very good: education, health, community based culture, community generated alternative news, and so on, but which also means that it is not tailored to the specific regional needs of Merida. If he had listened, we could have told him that we also need pubic toilets, and to close the centre from the unmoving and contaminating traffic, we need help in setting up community based recycling systems and more urban agriculture, we need a drug rehabilitation centre, and so on. Had his proposal for government come from us and been more concrete and related to our specific reality, that would be another reason people would have been much more motivated to campaign and vote for the PSUV.

Elections aren’t revolution

Alexis and his PSUV team have been campaigning hard: there are posters and banners everywhere, he’s done rallies and house visits in all the parroquias of the state, he had a mass rally in Merida in the Plaza de Toros (Bull fighting plaza), and he’s spoken at meetings of various specific sectors of society, such as teachers, transport workers, and the Lawyers’ Front.

But the campaign hasn’t had the same sort of energy, passion, and daily street presence as during the campaign for Chavez for president a few months ago. Nor is it that different, in essence, to a typical election campaign in a country like Australia, with fairly meaningless slogans, posters with just the candidate’s face, red t-shirts that say “Alexis’, and relating to people as voters more than anything else.

In Miranda, revolutionaries seem to be a bit more inspired, with Jaua offering an exciting alternative to the abandon and lack of governance, especially of the poorer areas of Miranda, by Henrique Capriles, who recently ran for president for the opposition.

Back then, Capriles made a great effort to resemble Chavez, taking on revolutionary jargon – talking about “justice for the poor” and about “improving the missions”, because he knew how strong Chavez and his cause is. Now, Capriles has gone back to his old self, claiming that Jaua’s proposals were written in Cuba, saying, “We aren’t going to hand Miranda over to Castro-communism”.

Here in Merida, Lester Rodriguez has hardly done a thing. In fact, some of us are wondering if he’s still off holidaying in Europe. His team has put up a few posters with the banal and pathetic slogan of “Proudly Merideñan”, and he seems to have put out a few press releases, suggesting that the PSUV gets its funding from PDVSA, but that’s about it.

Had things have been done differently, as I’ve outlined, we could have won easily in Merida. But despite associating Alexis with Chavez, most people are pretty clear that they are not the same, and some people feel that the PSUV doesn’t represent the sort of revolution we want.

The electoral battles have to be fought to protect and safeguard the revolution, and even at times propel it, but many PSUV “leaders” don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, that revolution is when the people organise and take power in their communities, work places, and at the state and national levels too. A revolution is not unelected bureaucrats signing and stamping papers in air-conditioned officers, with the rest of us wearing a red t-shirt with the name of one of those bureaucrats, and then we vote for them.

Giving so much importance to these elections, calling them “critical”, reinforces the idea that we should expect such people to do everything for us. In reality, if the opposition wins Merida state, and any other states, that’s a good reason to deepen the revolution, distribute more resources directly to the people’s organisations; the communal councils, communes, workers’ councils, the movements, the Social Production Companies (EPSs) and so on.  That, and involving those organisations in deciding where and how resources are distributed, is revolution. Gradually taking power away from the structurally corrupt state governments who lack accountability towards or consultation of the grassroots, is necessary.

Our disorganised criticism

Despite the current climate of labelling anyone who criticises Alexis, a “traitor”, there has been a lot of debate and open criticism among revolutionaries in Merida – a positive thing which shows the development and maturity of many of those who are most active. Many people will vote for Porras- more as a statement of criticism than support for him particularly. Many others have written articles for alternative media site Aporrea expressing discontent.

Unfortunately, for now, such criticism is disorganised, and hence isn’t being converted into strong pressure.

We’re still learning and “rehearsing” revolution, as one writer, Jose Duque, put it, “like a one year old learning to walk and falling over every half metre”. It is natural that those with power resist change, and it’s okay and useful that there are problems and obstacles for us to face. As we fight them we learn, we become stronger and the revolution becomes harder to defeat.

Looking at the behind the scene dynamics of the PSUV like this, things can seem quite dire and worrying. But it’s important to remember how complex this revolution is, and that in this analysis I’ve just examined one aspect of it. On the other hand there is the urban agriculture springing up everywhere due to grassroots initiative and government support, there are prisoners learning to make documentaries, there’s the free dental care three blocks from my house, there’s the youth rapping about climate change and anti consumerism in our local plaza last Sunday, there’s the kids in the barrio becoming dignified through democratic, alternative education, and much more.

The levels of general political interest and understanding are increasing, and the courage, the fight the grassroots has, its resolve, is inspiring. These things are part of the antidote to the sour elements in the PSUV.