The Revolution Stumbles

The loss by the Chavistas of the main cities in Venezuela is a huge blow, and threatens the survival of the project.

Putting a brave face on a major electoral setback early on Monday morning, president Hugo Chavez quoted from a Guardian editorial
that had referred to Venezuela's "vibrant democracy". The result of
Sunday's regional elections, Chavez suggested, had been "a great
victory for the country, for its constitution, and for its political

And indeed it was true that his recently created United Socialist Party
of Venezuela had won the governorship of 17 states, whereas the
conservative opposition to his Bolivarian Revolution had only secured
five. Yet the president of the National Electoral Council,
close to tears, had announced earlier that the Chavez government had
lost the city of Caracas and its outer suburb of Miranda, as well as
the important western state of Zulia, on the Colombian frontier. Later
results showed that the Chavistas had also lost the state of Carabobo
and Tachira, as well as the municipality of Sucre (which includes the
vast working class town of Petare in the eastern outskirts of the

Although the former vice-president Jorge Rodriguez
won the state of El Libertador, in which two million people live in
shanty towns of western Caracas, Venezuela's most important urban
centres – Maracaibo, Valencia [editor's note: Chavez's party won in Valencia], and Caracas – are now in the hands of
the opposition. This appears to follow the recent trend in Latin
America, where the right have won great cities like Buenos Aires in
Argentina and Sao Paulo in Brazil. As a result of this unfavourable
vote in the urban areas, Chavez has lost the services of important long
time colleagues, including Aristobulo Isturiz, Jesse Chacon, and
Diosdado Cabello.

Yet in spite of this electoral reverse, this is
a country that remains in a state of revolutionary change, a vast
upheaval involving politics, culture, patterns of work, or new ways of
thinking, the relationship between men and women, the adoption of new
technologies, the explosion of community media, the revival of
historical memory, and the mobilisation of millions of people to
overcome the tedium of daily life.

New schools, new posts for
medical assistance, and new cultural centres have been springing up in
every shanty town throughout the country. Health and education have
been a priority in other Latin American countries in recent years – an
area of social transformation which Cuba has long been in the lead –
yet only in Venezuela has the prosaic task of providing people with the
basic necessities of life been accompanied by this revolutionary
awakening of the people to the possibilities of what they themselves
can do to achieve improvement, betterment, and change.

elections took place in a disciplined atmosphere of suppressed
excitement as people rose to the task of bringing out the vote and
thereby ensuring the continuity of the revolutionary process, yet as
the day wore on a more sombre mood prevailed as people began to
contemplate the possibility of defeat.

It is true, of course,
that half the population – for reasons of class or race or family
upbringing – remains adjacent to this unique revolutionary process, and
prefers to remain on the sidelines of history. Yet many Venezuelans,
after 10 years of upheaval under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, remain
solidly supportive of the project of which they see themselves to be an
integral part.

All this is now under threat. The Chavez
government was expecting to lose three or four states in Sunday's
elections, since the opposition had foolishly called for an electoral
boycott at the last regional elections four years ago, but the loss of
the principal cities is a huge blow; the analysis of what happened and
why has already begun. One failing today seems obvious: although the Bolivarian Revolution
has gone a long way towards addressing the problems of health and
education throughout the country, a number of specifically urban
phenomena have not been adequately tackled. Crime, housing, transport,
and rubbish collection are all areas where the Chavista governors have failed to produce results – and their candidates have paid the price.

politicians, some of whom supported the anti-Chavez coup in 2002, face
the challenge of trying to deal with the mess, inherited from way back
before the Chavez era. Antonio Ledezma, the new mayor of Caracas,
has already mentioned the introduction of neighbourhood policing to
tackle the crime wave. Yet in a country that remains deeply polarised,
the new urban authorities are faced with an superhuman task, while the
Chavistas will look on in dismay.