It’s no secret that in today’s corporate-dominated mainstream media landscape, Venezuela appears almost ubiquitously as a synonym of “dictatorship”.
This is why many may be surprised that Venezuela will be celebrating its 23rd election in 18 years on December 10 when Venezuelans go to the polls to elect local mayors.
While historically Caracas voters have had to choose between the governing United Socialist Party (PSUV) and the opposition, this time around the field is wide open, in light of the decision by the largest opposition parties to boycott the vote.
Next month, the residents of the nation’s largest municipality of El Libertador will have a choice among five candidates for mayor, including three from the leftist PSUV-led Great Patriotic Pole (GPP) coalition.
Absent any real electoral threat from the right, the election opens a space for social movements and smaller leftist parties to contest the hegemony of the PSUV, reigniting long muted debates about inner-movement democracy and socialist strategy.
Revitalizing these dialectical tensions – both between government and people as well as party and movement – is a sin qua non for Chavismo retaking the revolutionary offensive.
The frontrunner in the race is prominent United Socialist Party leader Erika Farias, who hopes to succeed two-term PSUV incumbent Jorge Rodriguez to become Caracas’ first-ever female mayor.
Born in the San Juan parish of Caracas, 45-year-old Afro-Venezuelan Farias has served in a plethora high level government posts, including Communes Minister, Minister of Urban Agriculture, Food Minister, Cojedes state governor, chief of staff both to former President Hugo Chávez and most recently to President Maduro. As of November 10, Maduro tapped Farias to head the High Command of Caracas – a body tasked with providing rapid responses to urgent urban problems – from where she will already “begin to govern” the city.
Farias has promised to expand social programs in El Libertador, including the Local Production and Provision Committees (CLAPs), which sees the government partner with local communities to deliver food at subsidized prices house by house.
“CLAP will reach 839,000 Caracas families every 15 days,” she pledged.
In particular, she indicated that for this holiday season, a special CLAP delivery will include one of Venezuelans’ favorite Christmas dishes, ham bread, which has become extremely expensive on the private market.
From her newly appointed post, the PSUV leader has vowed to improve trash collection and urban transport, as well install 1 million energy-saving lightbulbs throughout the city.
For community activist Gustavo Borges, Farias is the candidate of the Caracas barrios and represents “the continuity of social power in the hands of the people”.
He hopes that a Farias administration will deepen popular participation in local government, mobilizing communal councils to engage in social controllership and promote policies reflecting their interests.
Unlike in previous mayoral elections, Farias is not, however, the only GPP candidate contending for the top municipal spot.
Challenging the PSUV frontrunner is former Commerce Minister and consumer protection czar Eduardo Saman, who is backed by the Homeland for All (PPT) party and the Communist Party (PCV). He was also initially endorsed by the People’s Electoral Movement, though the party has since withdrawn its nomination for undisclosed reasons.
A lifelong left-wing activist, university professor, and pharmacist by training, Saman gained fame as an honest and efficient administrator committed to fighting corruption, enforcing pro-poor price controls, reforming monopolistic intellectual property laws.
During his tenure in government, Saman made powerful enemies among transnational and domestic capitalist interests as well as corrupt elements within the Venezuelan state, which many believe led to his 2011 firing by Chavez as well as a 2013 assassination attempt.
Saman was additionally a source of great concern to the US State Department, which mentioned the ex-minister in no less than 22 cables between 2004 and 2010. Describing him as an “avowed Marxist who has never believed in intellectual property or markets”, Washington viewed with alarm Saman’s proposal to replace pharmaceutical patents with revocable concessions allowing low-cost domestic production of generic drugs.
The Catia-born ex-minister has vowed to exercise “collective leadership” in resolving Caracas’ “grave problems”, including the high cost of food and transport as well as homelessness.
He has made food security one of his key campaign issues, vowing to relaunch and improve city-operated produce markets and slaughterhouses as well as expand urban agriculture.
“We have to work on urban agriculture because we have to reinvent our city, which can’t keep living off [oil] rents,” he said in an interview with Union Radio last week.
Saman’s honesty and self-proclaimed “revolutionary” approach to urban problems has made him very popular among many Chavistas, including Eliseb Anuel, a sociologist and member of the Street Network, an activist-research collective focused on urban youth and violence.
“I would vote for Saman because he’s not a conventional politician in an electoral sense, but a politician, activist, and intellectual… who has been in the streets and has the sympathy of a great many social movements.”
She adds that unlike the PSUV candidate Erika Farias, Saman has a “comprehensive vision” necessary for strengthening El Libertador’s numerous social programs in the areas of culture, housing, healthcare, sports, and community media.
The final GPP contender is Oswaldo Rivero, alias “Cabeza e´Mango” (“mango head”), host of the popular youth-oriented public television program Zurda Konducta.
Born and raised in the militant working class January 23rd neighborhood of Caracas, Rivero is a member of the ex-guerrilla Tupamaros Revolutionary Movement, which gave up armed struggle to become a legal political party in 2004.
The TV host has made fighting bureaucratism within the Venezuelan state the centerpiece of his campaign.
“We are organizing to give a response, precisely to the bureaucracy… and to inefficiency… we are going to build a campaign of socialism with the bases, with the popular movements… this is Another Politics,” he said in a video published on his Twitter.
Rivero’s candidacy has likewise appealed to many Chavistas disillusioned with the Maduro government and PSUV.
“I like [Rivero’s] struggle in the street and work with the bases and the barrios,” says grassroots journalist Y. Jimenez.
“I don’t support this government anymore and I will vote for those who have been real and consistent, or I won’t vote,” she told VA.
However as of November 9, Rivero announced on Twitter that his party had retracted its support for his candidacy without providing further details. The Tupamaros party has yet to comment publicly on the issue.
In response, Saman has offered Rivero a position in the “collective leadership” of his campaign.
Rivero has yet to accept or decline the offer, though the current status of his campaign remains unclear.
As of last Friday, the leftist journalist revealed that authorities at state television channel VTV are not allowing him to appear on his program, “while the situation of [his] candidacy is not resolved.”
He has also accused PSUV leaders of using the justification of revolutionary unity and “discipline” to advance personal careers at the expensive of candidacies like his own.
“One thing is to be disciplined and another is to be a lackey that goes against the bottom-up processes of the bases in order to look after your own personal share [of power],” he wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, many of Rivero’s erstwhile supporters appear to be flocking to Saman. A day after talking to VA, Jimenez reportedly switched her allegiance to the ex-minister.
In addition to the three GPP candidates, voters will have the option of giving their support to self-described “dissident Chavista” politician Nicmer Evans of the independent New Vision for My Country (NUVIPA) party.
Presenting himself as an “alternative” to the “polarization” between the government and the opposition, Evans is a political scientist and ex-member of the Trotskyist Socialist Tide organization, which split from the PSUV in 2014.
However, as an opposition candidate with minimal name recognition in traditionally GPP-dominated El Libertador, Evans stands little chance of winning the mayorship, especially given the major opposition parties’ calls for abstention.
Apart from Evans, center-right New Era Party (UNT) Councilwoman Kadary Rondon has also reportedly registered as a candidate in the race, though she has given little indication that she is actively campaigning for the municipal office.
While Rondon may win some symbolic opposition votes, her party has little national presence outside its bastion of Zulia state and as such her chances of having any impact on the race are negligible.
Controversy: ‘Sectarianism’ or ‘revolutionary diversity’?
Just like last month’s regional races – which was assumed by Chavismo and the opposition as a strategic skirmish in anticipation of next year’s presidential elections – December 10’s elections are no ordinary municipal contests.
Given the boycott by a majority of opposition parties this time around, the upcoming elections will serve as an index of the correlation of forces, not between Chavismo and the opposition, but within the Bolivarian movement itself.
Coming off its surprise October 15 victory, the Maduro government views the local elections as an opportunity to seize upon its current momentum and exploit the opposition’s recent sectarian meltdown in order to score win after municipal win.
To this end, the PSUV – ever the centralized political war machine – justified forgoing primaries in the interest of rapidly consolidating local candidacies to face the few opposition parties willing to take part.
While perhaps a correct assessment of the balance of forces vis-a-vis the opposition, the move betrayed a gross misreading of Chavismo’s current internal dynamics.
Many allied leftist parties and popular movements sees the opposition boycott as a historic opportunity to challenge the hegemony of the PSUV and deepen the process of radicalization begun with the National Constituent Assembly elections, which saw 16,000 candidates from all walks of Venezuelan life participate.
Parties like the PPT have insisted on fielding challengers to PSUV candidates, citing the need for “revolutionary diversity”.
“There is revolutionary diversity…This strengthens the model of revolutionary democracy,” PPT leader Ilenia Medina told reporters.
The leftist party has said it is launching its own candidates in 334 of the nation’s 335 municipalities, though it says it is open to negotiating agreements with the PSUV and other parties
The Communist Party, for its part, has said it will back PSUV candidates “where there are no questions of an ethical and moral nature”.
In Barinas for instance, the PCV will launch its own contenders in four municipalities unless the PSUV replaces its candidates that the party considers “corrupt”.
Indeed, corruption has long been an elephant in the room for the PSUV and its decision to run candidates with questionable track records in some municipalities has alienated sections of its base.
In addition to corruption, the PSUV national leadership’s decision to forgo primaries and designate candidates from above has irked not only its fellow GPP parties but many among its own rank and file, who consider the practice an imposition.
“The issue is how candidates are chosen. It should be an agreement between various parties in order to ensure an overwhelming triumph,” explains grassroots Chavista activist and PSUV member Carmen Lepage Peñalver.
“Because if not, the PSUV imposes itself, the decent people split off and [the candidate] loses strength,” she added.
In one high-profile case, National Constituent Assembly delegate and communal leader Angel Prado faced a protracted bureaucratic battle in order to run for mayor of his Lara state municipality, despite overwhelming support from his community, because the PSUV refused to support him in favor of another candidate. As of Friday, Prado succeeded in registering his candidacy with the CNE on the ticket of the Tupamaro party.
Nonetheless, the calls for greater diversity within the GPP have fallen on deaf ears, with Maduro and other top PSUV leaders urging their allies to close ranks.
Speaking last week, Maduro criticized other GPP parties’ decision to launch their own candidates as “sectarianism” and called on them to “reach an agreement and unify candidates” throughout the country.
“We can’t allow any party or political group of the revolution to launch candidates on their own without thinking, in a sort of anarchy, chaos,” he warned.
In this vein, the El Libertador race represents a critical and highly symbolic front in this broader struggle within Chavismo.
Farias, who herself stands on the left end of the Chavista political class, has expressed thinly-veiled criticisms of her opponents’ decisions to run.
“Chavez taught us that the revolutionary adds and multiplies [and] it’s counter-revolution that divides and diminishes, let’s not put ourselves on that side… it’s the hour of loyalty, organization, consciousness, because we are at war and in war any doubt can become treason,” she said last week.
Saman has, however, rejected such calls for him to stand down, pointing out that in El Libertador, “the opposition is not a threat because the strongest opposition parties are not participating.”
“The different currents within the revolutionary movement have to contest each other because there has to be diversity in socialism, in democracy, we can’t line up behind a single form of thought,” he told Union Radio.
The ex-minister has nevertheless indicated that he is open to renouncing his candidacy in the event of an agreement with the PSUV, but only if Farias is willing to do the same.
In recent days, Saman has also accused Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) of attempting to “censure” his candidacy.
He reports that while the CNE has finally processed the PPT and PCV’s request to sponsor him as their candidate, the body has neglected to change the names on the ballot, meaning that voters will have to cast their votes for the leftist parties’ prior candidates, Rafael Uzcategui and Adelaida Zerpa, in order to support him.
“[The CNE] doesn’t give real reasons [for the error], because we turned in the signatures within the timeframe mandated by the law. The only reason is to create confusion in the electorate and threaten my votes,” he said during an appearance at Venezuela’s International Book Fair Sunday.
“The fact that they want to invisibilize me, that they don’t want my name to appear on the ballot, is a bad signal they are sending to the Venezuelan people and to the world,” he concluded.
The ex-minister has, however, not remained passive in the face of bureaucratic efforts to torpedo his candidacy.
On Saturday, Saman led a protest outside the CNE office in central Caracas demanding the institution formalize his name on the ballot.
As of Monday, he indicated that he met with CNE Rector Soccoro Hernandez, who confirmed that he is now officially the candidate for PPT.
Nevertheless, his name is still yet to appear on the ballot.
During the meeting, the ex-minister also filed an official complaint with regard to “discrimination in access to media”, noting that two state television channels, one state radio station, and one private TV channel had cancelled interviews with him without explanation.
Interestingly Saman’s uphill mayoral battle has largely been ignored by an international media that salivates at even the slightest hint of alleged “authoritarianism” in Venezuela.
Too busy characterizing pro-Washington opposition figures such as Freddy Guevara and Luisa Ortega as martyrs, mainstream outlets spare little ink for “avowed Marxist[s]” such as Saman, who are critical of the government but committed to defending the Bolivarian model of revolutionary democracy against US aggression.
Indeed for corporate journalists and their masters in Washington, authentic socialist revolutionaries like Saman represent a much greater threat than the mild social democrats currently at the helm of the government in Caracas.
The stakes of Chavismo’s political crisis
The PSUV’s calls for closing ranks around its candidates in the name of “loyalty” is symptomatic of what former Communes Minister Reinaldo Iturriza terms a “crisis of political mediation” within the Chavista camp.
Unable to win votes on the basis of revolutionary proposals as Chavez did masterfully again and again, PSUV leaders have been on the defensive since 2013, campaigning on prior social achievements and on the threat posed by the US-backed right-wing opposition.
As a result, the PSUV lost over 2.5 million votes between Chavez’s 2012 reelection triumph and the GPP’s devastating 2015 parliamentary defeat.
Part of this is explicable in terms of the collapse of the Bolivarian government’s two fundamental pillars: the loss of Chavez as agent of the Venezuelan popular movements within the state and the historic fall of oil prices, the source of nearly all of Venezuela’s foreign currency earnings and bedrock of its social programs.
Nevertheless, there is also a structural dimension behind the PSUV’s reformist inertia, namely that it is a poly-class party that from its inception filled its top leadership positions with bureaucrats long positioned within the state apparatus, effectively foreclosing any possibility of political autonomy. In this respect, it is ministers, governors, and mayors who control the party at every level – and not vice-versa – meaning that the PSUV is effectively fused at the hip with the state apparatus.
Taken together, these factors have meant that PSUV leaders are often unwilling to bet their money on grassroots candidates chosen through inclusive local primaries, preferring to parachute in candidates from the party machine, viewed as “safer” on account of name recognition and long trajectories in public administration.
This top-down practice has led to loss after loss: first in 2015 when the PSUV ignored the primary results and imposed its own candidates and most recently this past October when the party backed unpopular incumbents in Tachira, Zulia, and Nueva Esparta.
While the July 30 National Constituent Assembly elections undoubtedly breathed new life into Chavismo, opening up spaces for bottom-up candidates and proposals, it served to only further sharpen the contradictions within the Bolivarian bloc.
As a result of the opposition boycott, the election pitted PSUV candidates against those from popular movements and other left-wing parties. Most emblematic of this second tendency was the revolutionary platform of “Chavismo Untamed” (Chavismo Bravío), which defends the ANC as a historic opportunity to accumulate popular forces in order to push through radical measures aimed at resolving the current crisis in the direction of socialism.
Here what is at stake in this struggle is not just an ideological orientation or political program but a way of doing politics.
Taking up Chavez’s call to “rule by obeying”, Chavismo Bravío stands for the possibility of breaking with bourgeois representative democracy in order to build a radical, grassroots, and thoroughly participatory one centered in the commune.
In this sense, the El Libertador mayor’s race is not really about which candidate would be better for Caracas from a narrow public policy angle. It’s a question of underlying political logic, of how the “contradictions among the people” are correctly handled in order to prevent a rupture between the popular movements and the party – an imminent danger given the declining support for the PSUV and the government born of their lack of decisive response to the country's severe economic crisis.
“My problem is not whether it’s Erika [Farias], Mango [Rivero], or Saman, but that whoever is the candidate comes out of a more dialectical, respectful process, in direct connection to popular organization,” Lepage explains.
As such, December 10, despite its seeming strategic insignificance, represents a historic crossroads for the Bolivarian movement: will Chavismo deepen its internal democracy so indispensable for defeating the imperialist enemy, or will the rot of bureaucratic depoliticization continue to erode its social base?
The fate of the Revolution depends on the answer to this question.