Feet of Clay or an Achilles’ Heel?

The catastrophic collapse of Chavismo was not to be, but nor was this a crushing victory or a clear mandate for the drastic radicalization of the revolutionary process. What was revealed was not feet of clay, but an Achilles' heel, giving necessary pause to revolutionaries and imposing reflection on some serious strategic losses.

Media outlets were predicting a disaster for Venezuela's
Chavistas. Desperate for news that was fit to print, the opposition-controlled
Venezuelan press and its foreign counterparts convinced many that the time had
come for Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution, after stumbling a year ago
in a slim referendum defeat, to finally reveal its feet of clay and come
crashing down under its own weight. But the opposition had already squandered
the slight momentum it achieved a year ago on partisan bickering, and would not
live up to the unrealistic optimism it sought to foster in the media.

In reality, the catastrophic collapse of Chavismo was not to
be, but nor was this a crushing victory or a clear mandate for the drastic radicalization
of the revolutionary process. What was revealed was not feet of clay, but an Achilles'
heel, giving necessary pause to revolutionaries and imposing reflection on some
serious strategic losses.

Opposition Scaremongering

For a Venezuelan opposition still not entirely comfortable
with the notion of democracy, elections have much more to do with media maneuvering
than the actual vote, and they would find in Simon Romero of the New York Times a convenient mouthpiece. Either
through trademark laziness or unprecedented effort to distort the truth, Romero
took aim
at Chávez's recent statements regarding the election in the state
of Carabobo, suggesting that the president was threatening to refuse to
recognize an opposition victory in the state, instead sending tanks to quell
the opposition. Unsurprisingly, what Chávez had actually said was quite
different: he had noted that the opposition candidate for the state
governorship, Enrique Salas Feo, had been an active participant in the 2002
coup, suggesting that an opposition victory in Carabobo might provide a staging
ground for another effort at his ouster. "I won't let them overthrow me," Chávez insisted, "and
I might have to bring out the tanks to defend this revolutionary government."

With the mediatic framework in place, the opposition on the
ground engaged in the perennial strategy of preemptively undermining the
eventual results of the election. At 4pm on election day, opposition leaders—conspicuously
including Ismael García, leader of the formerly-Chavista PODEMOS—declared
"generalized fraud" as some electoral centers remained open after the nominal
closing time, demanding that voting centers be closed immediately. But such
calls were in open violation of Venezuelan law, under which voting centers are
obligated to remain open as long as a line of voters remains. The day's high
participation-the opposition knew from the outset-was not to their

Participation was indeed high: some 66% of registered voters
are reported to have turned out, a record of sorts for local elections. And
this despite the torrential rains that have pelted much of the country in
recent days, prompting inevitable comparison to the notorious rains and
cataclysmic mudslides that plagued the 1999 constitutional referendum, and the
equally-notorious declarations by the Catholic Church that the rains
constituted a punishment for Chávez's impudence. This vote, however, was not
that of an exuberantly young process as in 1999, but rather a necessary hurdle
to be surpassed as a sign of institutional revolutionary maturity, and therein
lay the specific challenges it posed. 

Modest Opposition

In the western oil state of Zulia, Chavista candidate and
former mayor of Maracaibo Giancarlo Di Martino put up a valiant fight,
garnering some 45% of the vote in what had been an opposition stronghold
against hand-picked successor of former opposition presidential candidate
Manuel Rosales, Pablo Pérez, with 53%. While this victory for the
opposition—like the win in Nueva Esparta state—was no surprise, the
relative tightness of the race was. And equally surprising was the fact that
Chavistas managed to pick
up a majority
of mayoral races in the escualido
stronghold of Nueva Esparta.

More surprising, however, were slim opposition pickups in
Táchira and Carabobo states. In traditionally conservative Táchira, Chavistas
have fared poorly in recent years, a fact not helped by the departure of Luis
Tascón, a fiery Tachirense, from the
PSUV ranks. In Carabobo, incumbent former Chavista Felipe Acosta Carlez—best
known for offending the press by belching and farting on television—refused
to comply with PSUV internal elections, insisting on running for re-election
against the official Chavista candidate and TV personality Mario Silva. While Acosta
Carlez only took 6.5%, this was almost certainly enough to tip the scales in a
close race only decided by three percentage points.

A Key Loss in
Metropolitan Caracas

The two most surprising and significant victories for the
opposition were certainly in metropolitan Caracas and the neighboring state of
Miranda, and both have clear repercussions for the future, since the defeated
Chavista candidates were the two most likely successors to the president
himself. But the lessons to be taken from the two are different. While Chávez's
own support is highest in rural areas, in past elections the president has
generally been able to win many of the country's large metropolitan areas,
albeit by small margins. Caracas itself is a city divided, with poor barrios voting overwhelmingly for Chávez
and the wealthier-but less populated-areas voting up to 80%
against. It has been from these opposition zones that the young leadership of
the right has emerged, in the charismatic figures of Leopoldo López and
Henrique Radonski, both with their origins in the far-right, U.S.-sponsored
Primero Justicia party.

While López was disqualified from seeking election as
metropolitan mayor due to pending corruption charges, he threw his significant
weight behind far-right former Caracas mayor and previously intransigent
abstentionist Antonio Ledezma. Indeed, for an opposition which tends to be its
own worst enemy, López's disqualification may have proven a blessing in
disguise, as it avoided the always messy process of selecting a joint
candidate. The Chavista candidate, Aristóbulo Isturiz, is a former education
minister and one of the most respected names within the Revolution, having
risen from union ranks to the Congress when Chávez himself was a young coup
plotter. In the end, however, Ledezma pulled off an upset, returning him to a
post that he held more than a decade ago, when he had close ties to the now-discredited
politicians of the Venezuelan ancien

For an explanation as to how Ledezma managed this upset victory,
we need to look at the five municipalities that make up metropolitan Caracas.
Three are traditionally opposition bastions, and it is from two of these that
López and Radonski emerged, whereas the sprawling municipality of Libertador in
western Caracas has consistently gone Chavista. Despite multiple candidacies on
either side, Chavistas maintained this control of Libertador, with former vice
president Jorge Rodríguez winning handily over opportunist student leader
Stalin González by a double-digit margin. But the only Caracas municipality to
shift hands was Sucre in the east, a complex combination of upper-middle-class
residential areas and the infamous Petare slums, in which Primero Justicia's
Carlos Ocariz defeated former Chavista interior minister Jesse Chacón by 8
percentage points. Testifying both to discontent with prior Chavista municipal
leadership as well as PJ's concerted efforts to build support in the
less-revolutionary barrios of Petare,
it seems as though Sucre may have been the cause of the metropolitan area
tipping toward the opposition.

We would be wrong to interpret this opposition coup in the
metropolitan area of Caracas as having merely political implications: in the
last real coup, in 2002, the
opposition-controlled Metropolitan Police played a key role in staging the
bloodbath used to justify Chávez's ouster. And given the fact that in many
areas the Metropolitan Police have effectively withdrawn, allowing
revolutionary popular militias to control security, the next few years could
see open warfare once again on the streets of Caracas. This victory for the
opposition, while slim in margin, is potentially massive in its implications.

Diosdado Goes Down

The other shock defeat for the Chavistas came in neighboring
Miranda state, which itself contains half of the metropolitan area of Caracas.
Here, Chávez's right-hand-man (emphasis on the "right"), Diosdado Cabello, has
been governing and consolidating a significant power base during the past four
years. Originally a participant in Chávez's failed coup efforts, Cabello has
since come to be a powerful and loyal ally of the president, stepping in as
vice president during the 2002 coup to help undermine the coup. But Cabello has
also come to represent the "endogenous right," quietly heading up the significant
contingent of Chavistas who would like to take power themselves and moderate
the revolutionary process. As a result of this uncomfortably public role as
leader of the Chavista right, Cabello has suffered the scorn of voters before,
notably within the PSUV itself, where he didn't manage to score within the top
15 elected members of the party leadership (only to be subsequently appointed
by Chávez).

If Cabello's star is fading, his opponent Henrique Capriles
Radonski is himself a rising star of the opposition and currently mayor of
Baruta municipality. A young, charismatic heartthrob, whose personal website
features the mayor in several shirtless, modelesque poses, Radonski has also
(like López) run afoul of the law, for participating in a public attack and
siege on the Cuban Embassy during the 2002 coup. Luckily for Radonski, however,
charges were dropped in time for the elections, in which his record of
governance in wealthy Baruta combined with Diosdado's waning popularity to
deliver a heavy defeat in Miranda. Here, certainly, Cabello's own electoral
feet were shown to be made of clay. If this bodes well for the superstar of the
Venezuelan opposition—himself a possible presidential opponent in years to
come—the result isn't entirely negative for those Chavistas who had grown
wary of Cabello's increasingly visible role within the governing movement.

The Map is Still Red

The mainstream press has made every effort to frame these
elections in such a way that the opposition would inevitably appear as the
winner. Central to this framing was the oft-repeated claim that, prior to the
election, Chavistas controlled 21 of 23 state governments. This is simply nonsense.
While it is true that after the 2004 gubernatorial elections, Chavistas had
gained control of 21 states, such control wouldn't last, and the
social-democratic PODEMOS coalition would soon move toward the opposition,
taking with it the states of Aragua and Sucre. Furthermore, as incumbent
governors refused to be displaced by the PSUV primary process, further ruptures
ensued in Guárico, Carabobo, and Yaracuy, reducing PSUV control of incumbents
to 16.

As first vice president of the PSUV Alberto Müller Rojas put it in
his post-election press conference, "we regained four states lost through
treason," further noting that the PSUV had consolidated itself as the first
political force in the country. Chávez himself echoed this sentiment in
a surprise appearance just moments later:

We're almost ten years from that
initial victory, and the people have expressed their will, and vaya, con qué contundencia! … Once again
we see the shattering of those irrational, outlandish, and unsubstantiated
arguments that some still dare to make about Venezuela… both those who voted
for the Revolution and those who voted for other candidates, they all showed
that here we have a democratic system, that here we respect the decision of the
people… Who could say that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela?

Speaking directly to opposition claims to have defeated
Chávez and the PSUV, his response was stark: "If they want to fall into lies,
let them fall into lies… we have won 17 gubernatorial races, our party has been
consolidated, we are headed for 6 million votes, and the map [of Venezuela] is
dressed almost totally in red!" But
the president warned nevertheless of the need to self-criticize, recognize
errors, and take responsibility for the losses incurred, "because it's like a
war, when an advancing army takes 20 hills and loses two, but takes three more
on the way. What is most important is to maintain the rhythm of the march and
the rhythm of victory."

to the early count
, the PSUV obtained 5.3 million votes, compared with the
4.3 million garnered by the opposition, and this despite losing the two most
densely-populated states in the country. Jorge Rodríguez insisted
that the opposition recognize the clear PSUV mandate, arguing that "when it
comes to the strength of Venezuelan democracy, you can't block out the sun with
your finger." But we can expect the privately-controlled Venezuelan press and
their international counterparts to attempt to do just that, insisting that the
Chavistas have dropped from 21 to 17 states, when in reality, seen correctly,
they have actually gained in the
overall picture. And where they won, they often did so somewhat astoundingly,
claiming some 73% in Lara and 61% in Vargas. Chavistas won a total of 8 states
by 10% or more, 4 states by 20% or more, and 2 states by 50% or more, as compared to the opposition's best
showing of 57% in Nueva Esparta.

The Achilles Heel of
the Revolution

If we were to follow the mainstream press talking points,
the lesson of the elections was the failure of the Revolution in dealing with
the everyday wants and needs of the Venezuelan population. This is half true,
but the issue is too often reduced to its most mundane aspects, depriving the
Venezuelan people of the capacity for political judgment. Certainly, the fact
that garbage often piles up in the streets and that violence continues to
plague Venezuelan cities contributed to the shock defeat of Chavista forces in
the metropolitan area. But the banality of the everyday doesn't quite capture
the gap between Chávez's 63% approval rating and the tangible repulsion that
many Venezuelans feel for their local officials, who are often seen—with more
than a little justification—as corrupt opportunists.

The municipal and state officials that were elected Sunday,
while representing an institutional level that remains necessary at the present
moment, are nevertheless merely a stepping stone for many on the road to a more
substantive popular-communal "dual power." As
alternative institutions develop, specifically the local and
directly-democratic communal councils, many hope to see the more heavily
bureaucratized levels of government replaced entirely. And as the councils flex
their muscles, these elected officials will become all the more rabidly
defensive of their power quota. Which is all to say that, if local elections
represent the Achilles' heel of the Bolivarian Revolution, perpetually
threatening to trip up its progress and disrupt its connection with the
grassroots, we can only expect this conflict to intensify in the short term.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political
theory at UC Berkeley. He is currently writing a people's history of the
Bolivarian Revolution entitled
We Created
Him. He can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.