Two Venezuelan Election Experiences

From traffic jams to supermarket tension, to grassroots secruity meetings and soup, soldiers and 3am trumpet calls, two writers give their accounts of the Venezuelan electoral experience.

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A voting booth in 23 de Enero, Caracas (Tamara Pearson/ Venezuelanalysis.com)
A voting booth in 23 de Enero, Caracas (Tamara Pearson/ Venezuelanalysis.com)
By George Ciccariello-Maher, Jody McIntyre
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From traffic jams to supermarket tension, to grassroots secruity meetings and soup, soldiers and 3am trumpet calls, two writers give their accounts of the Venezuelan electoral experience.

1) The Ballot and the Bullet - George Ciccariello-Maher

Source: Counterpunch.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

We made the mistake of flying into Caracas as Chávez was closing his campaign in the capital, up to 3 million of his red-shirted supporters clogging seven large city streets (the opposition had crowed proudly about having merely filled the Avenida Bolivar the previous week). As we sat in traffic, the minutes stretching into hours, our taxista comrade’s triumphalism took the form of sarcasm: “You see all this traffic,” she insisted, pointing at the hundreds of buses and cars full of Chávez supporters hanging out windows, honking horns, and waving flags, “this is the proof that the Presidente will be defeated.”

On the other side of this powerfully segregated metropolis, the tension was palpable but its source unclear. Upscale supermarkets were as clogged as the streets of the city center, but instead of the poor headed home after a triumphant march that for many sealed victory, now it was the well-heeled middle and upper classes stockpiling margarine, harinaPan for making arepas, and kilos of sugar. Many, their shopping complete, threw a few extra bolos at a worker to push their shopping carts up the uneven sidewalks: such is their undeniable charm.

This hysteria echoes and is stoked by the opposition press domestically and internationally, and some of the fears are comical at best, as with the self-styled exile who had a hard time finding a phone card in Caracas’ wealthiest neighborhood: surely the world must be rapidly approaching its end. While we expect such things from what is often dismissed as remnants of the “rancid oligarchy,” arguably more surprising was the coverage in the run-up to the election provided by The Guardian‘s Rory Carroll, who piled unsubstantiated claims upon nonsense to create a sense that the Chávez campaign was stumbling amid its patent inability to govern the country.

What are they afraid of, these domestic and foreign sowers of worry and discord? A combination of an irrational, racist, and classist fear of the Chavista other, and a deeper fear of themselves: the knowledge that if anything happens after the election, it will almost certainly be their doing. For Chavistas, awareness of the possibility of an opposition “Plan B” is the only damper on their expectations of victory.

Preparing for a Plan B

The night before the elections, I attend a clandestine security meeting in a barrio of southwestern Caracas, no doubt one of many such spontaneous gatherings of revolutionaries to discuss the possible security scenarios the election might bring. The participants discuss a plan for anonymously escaping from the neighborhood in the event of a coup or local clashes, but simmering under the surface is the question of what to do if Chávez loses, knowing full well that many of the most militant collectives which dot the Venezuelan political landscape have no intention of accepting defeat. “The Tupamaros aren’t going to sit around with their arms crossed,” one suggests.

This question of whether or not to recognize an opposition victory at the polls is hopelessly entangled with the certainty that no such victory is possible: as former vice president and current mayor of western Caracas put it at a press conference, Chávez will lose cuando las ranas echan pelos,when frogs grow hair. But there is also the very real and open question of whether such a massive step backward could be justified to conform to the formalities of a representative democracy that has always been viewed with suspicion by grassroots revolutionaries seeking to build a more participatory and direct form of democracy.

Another rejects the mere suggesting of leaving the barrio: “We can’t be cannon fodder, but why would we flee?” The specter of Chile and Pinochet’s coup hangs heavy, a constant reference point for hopes crushed and mistakes made, and the majority of revolutionary collectives seem to have learned the fundamental lesson of the Chilean tragedy. As one puts it, “I never have confidence in the police, in the military,” and the only trustworthy bulwark against the forces of reaction is popular self-defense

“Va a haber un peo”

At 3:15 in the morning, the trumpet calls of the toque de Diana shook the city from its tense half-slumber. Here the imperative to vote early is taken with the utmost seriousness, and before 4am many in Chávez strongholds had already taken their places outside their polling stations.

First thing in the morning, I head to the historically combative neighborhood of 23 de Enero with some comrades to take the pulse of the most extreme fringe of the Chavista movement, those armed revolutionary collectives and popular militias whose very existence is an open affront to the state’s monopoly of force. When we approach the headquarters of Radio 23 Combativa y Libertaria, lookouts spot us and a motorcycle trails slowly behind to make sure we’re not up to no good. Glen, a local revolutionary leader whose failing sight does little to dampen his revolutionary extremism, speaks to us frankly about how he sees the scenario: “creemos que va a haber un peo,” the opposition is likely to cause some sort of disturbance and refuse to accept the results of the election.

The often tense relations between the dozens of armed collectives operating in el 23 have been put aside to make military and political preparations for such an eventuality: “candela que se prenda, candela que apagamos, whatever fires they light, we will put out” (here not speaking entirely metaphorically). The opposition has used their wealth to accumulate weaponry, he tells me, but this doesn’t worry them too
much, since guns come with balas not bolas, they come with bullets but not the prerequisite “balls” to pull the trigger.

Glen is more unambiguously Chavista than when I spoke with him four years ago amid heightened tension between the collectives and the police. No amount of intermittent tension with the government could justify a return to the past: “before we were persecuted, we were imprisoned, we were murdered… We are no longer clandestine thanks to Chávez.” It is precisely those who have felt the hot lead of governments past who are least likely to accept any step backward, and Glen is no exception: they do not believe that there is any chance that Chávez will lose the election, but if this were to happen they have absolutely no intention of accepting the result, despite the fact that they believe that Chávez himself would.

But he also sees this election as Chávez’s “last chance”: the popular masses support Chávez, but have a “contained rage” toward the abuses perpetrated by those who often wear the red shirts of Chavismo. The forces of the revolution will only be undermined if corrupt or out-of-touch candidates are imposed from above in the upcoming regional elections. “Every day the war, the combat intensifies, and the right, themajunches no dan tregua, they don’t rest in their effort to retake spaces of power” once controlled by revolutionaries.

The day that this Revolution becomes reformist, all will be lost: “Chávez is our spokesperson. It’s not that he’s indispensable, but he’s indispensable at this moment.” Despite his open and unmitigated support for this leader without whom a civil war would be almost inevitable, Glen nevertheless does not mince words: “either Chávez assumes the task [of deepening the process] or he can fuck off.”

Between Constituent and Constituted

In a powerful instantiation of the peculiarities of revolutionary Venezuela, where we speak to Glen is but a few minutes walk and a rickety barrio stairway away from where Chávez himself is preparing to vote. The press and supporters gather in the hot sun and wait more than two hours for the Comandante to show his face, with cheers erupting for every minister and local political leader who arrives on the scene. When Chávez himself arrives, the roar is deafening:

Uh, Ah, Chávez no se va

Chávez isn’t going anywhere

Pa’lante, Pa’lante, Pa’lante Comandante

onward, onward, onward Comandante

None of this is surprising, but less noticed is the fact that these elected officials, these representatives of the people who occupy positions in the structures of constituted power, are waving to the adoring crowds from beneath murals and banners of yet another revolutionary collective, Alexis Vive, which while supporting the government similarly maintains a fierce constituent independence from the centralized power of the state.

This peculiar interweaving of constituent power and constituted state authority which characterizes our itinerary throughout the day, is a profound and frequently misunderstood element of the political process underway in Venezuela. Much of this misunderstanding, moreover, comes from the fact that constituted power is often hesitant to publicly embrace its own revolutionary constituents. Chávez frequently condemns as “ultra-leftist” the provocative actions of the collectives, and most centrally La Piedrita, led by Valentín Santana, who on paper at least is being sought by the police and is subject to arrest. But as one militant tells me, it was at the behest of the Chávez government itself that Santana was laying low in the run-up to the election, since such provocations could only harm the president’s re-election effort. Such discomfort at the closeness of the movements is understandable for those tasked with governing, but it is also the most powerful motor that this revolutionary process has.

In the afternoon, belly full of the sort of hearty sancocho stew that isn’t to be found in wealthy parts of the city, I head to the southern barrio of El Valle, where the revolutionary organization Bravo Sur has established a sala situacional. These salas are, like the security meeting of the previous night, makeshift headquarters established to keep track of current developments and to make the decisions necessary for any eventuality. A ten-year-old stands up, displaying his right pinky finger, painted to look as though he, too, had voted, giving an improvised speech on his expectation that Chávez will win, and that if he doesn’t, estamos perdidos todos, we are all lost.

As afternoon becomes evening, however, optimism in the room gives way to clear worry, stoked by text messages flowing in from across the country, and rumors that Chávez has lost his home state of Barinas due to the mismanagement of his family (this proved untrue), that his lead has dwindled in early reporting to a mere 7 percent, and that some armed provocations from the opposition were already appearing in Petare, the largest and most dangerous of Caracas’ barrios. By 6:45 texts from Miraflores Palace speak of a 12 percent margin, others of 15 percent, but as the polls close, no one is resting comfortably.

Soldiers and Revolutionaries

It’s time to zip across the city once again, back toward the capital, this time perched precariously on the back of a motorcycle. A comrade asks me, “do you want to go safe or fast?” “Both” doesn’t seem to be an available option and so I settle for the latter. As we tear across the city, slowing only slightly for red lights, strangers shout “Ganó!” from street corners: “He won!” Back in the heart of the revolution, 23 de Enero, the celebration has begun. Despite the ley seca, or dry law, rum and beer is flowing freely and many haven’t slept for 36 hours already. Amid the pounding reggaeton and the din of motorcycle engines, a red-clad woman eulogizes her “beautiful president, who has always had his feet in the dirt like us.”

As I stand speaking with her in the recently renovated Che Guevara Plaza overlooking the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, the National Electoral Council announces that Chávez has been re-elected by a margin of 10 percentage points. The barrio explodes, and massive fireworks appear in the sky over 23 de Enero. While 10 percent would constitute a landslide anywhere else, the celebration is as much about relief as anything else: for a candidate that won by more than 20 percent in 2006, this race was too close for comfort.

At the Coordinadora, the particularities of this unprecedented revolution are on full display. Two paratroopers roll up on a motorcycle with AK-47s, dismount, and to the joy of the crowd shout “Viva Chávez!” They have clearly been here before, and stride confidently into the Coordinadora, which is housed in a former police outpost and torture station. In a powerful and touching expression of the unprecedented fusion of revolutionaries and soldiers that has emerged in recent years, one warmly embraces Juan Contreras, a longtime militant and founder of the Coordinadora who for many years was the emblem of struggles against the existing order. Watching this uniformed and armed soldier hug someone who was considered a terrorist for most of his life, I realize just how far we are from the Chilean example.

By now, hundreds of bullets from handguns and automatic rifles fly from every rooftop, and even these paratroopers cringe as a batch of fireworks misfire only 20 feet away. Someone notices that the opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski is preparing to speak, and we pile into the front room of the Coordinadora, ragtag revolutionaries, foreign sympathizers and collaborators, and soldiers with automatic weapons hanging from their shoulders, to listen with a surprising level of respect as Capriles accepts defeat.

To paraphrase the great revolutionary thinker C.L.R. James, we could say that revolutions do not occur at the ballot-box, they are merely registered there, and while the dialectic is in practice more complex, there is a fundamental truth to this statement. This election, like Chávez himself, is the result of something far more profound that has been developing for decades, and which has accelerated considerably in recent years. It is only by grasping this fundamental truth that we can hope to contribute to the further deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution over the next six years.

George Ciccariello-Maher teaches political theory from below at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, forthcoming from Duke University Press. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

2)  The Venezuelan people make their Voice Heard - Jody McIntyre

Source: Jody's blog

The day began at 3am, October 7th, when people in Caracas were awoken by fireworks and music in the streets for the day of the Presidential elections.  Twenty hours later, and with no sleep in between, a massive crowd that had spontaneously forced it’s way into the grounds of Miraflores listened to the current President, Hugo Chavez, speak for an hour from the “People’s Balcony”.  After a day of peaceful voting, he had been re-elected by a margin of 54.5% to his opponent’s 45%.  Henrique Capriles accepted defeated, and Chavez praised the decision in his late-night speech.  “They have recognised the truth,” he said, “they have recognised the victory of the people.”

We had awoken long before the sun had risen yesterday.  In those early hours, as a festival-like atmosphere started to spread amongst neighbourhoods and barrios, I got a first glance of why there is something different about elections in Venezuela.  Can any of us imagine waking up at 3 or 4am, to go out and vote for a politician?  But the fact that Venezuelan people can, and indeed do so, speaks volumes about how much the vote means to them, and how much that they feel is at stake in this political process.  By the evening, before results were released, we heard that the rate of participation was 81% of the electorate; a record in Venezuelan history, and up from the 75% of the 2006 elections.  And here, as we drove through the dark but not deserted streets on our way to one of the barriosof Parroquia San Juan, was where it began.

In the mixed area we are staying in, we had heard both Chavez and Capriles-supporting songs being played, but the barrio we arrived in at 4am had an overwhelming presence of Chavez supporters.  People are not allowed to wear any clothing with political messages on the day of elections, another way that intimidation of voters depending on their preference is prevented, but something about people’s eagerness to get things going gave us a clue.  Voting didn’t begin for another two hours, and it was still dark, but as we arrived, people that had gathered made their way up the hill towards the local polling centre, one of 40 in San Juan and, comparatively, one of the smallest in the area, although we wouldn’t have known by the 35 people already surrounding the entrance.  A bleary-eyed soldier opened the door to the polling centre, apparently not surprised by the early appearance, but there was much to be done.  Clearly laid out posters were stuck up on the front wall of the school that was a polling station for the day, explaining the rules regarding voting, as well as three lists of people for the three tables inside that people would be able to vote at.  Every time someone arrived, their name was marked on one of the lists with a highlighter pen.  One of the rules reminded us of the ban on alcohol sales for the 48 hours preceding elections here; perhaps that’s why people are able to get up so early.  By 6am, an orderly queue had formed and it stretched to over a hundred people.

 It is important to explain at this point, I think, that Venezuela has one of the most advanced voting systems in the world.  You are identified by placing your thumb-print on an electronic touch screen, making it extremely difficult to impersonate someone else, unless you have their thumb!  Each candidate is distinguished by a clear photograph and name on the screen, no confusion there, and after pressing your choice the machine prints out a receipt to confirm it.  Presuming this is correct, you then place that in the voting box.  At the end of the day, votes are counted both electronically and by hand.  In other parts of the world, it is the norm for around 18% of votes to also be manually hand-counted, just to confirm that results are correct.  Here it is up to 60% that are counted by hand; they do not want to make mistakes in something that will determine the next six years of governance of the country.  There are no postal votes, meaning that even disabled, elderly or unwell people have to travel to polling stations.  However, as I very quickly found out, this does not seem to be a problem, and at every polling station I visited, I was immediately asked if I would like some help to go and vote!  Disabled people are taken straight to the front of the queue.  Which is lucky, considering the tail-backs as people queued for up to three hours in the sweltering heat to register their vote.  From 6am, for twelve hours straight.  Voting was officially meant to end at 6pm but, with people still queuing at polling stations, the process was continued until every single person had exercised their democratic right.  That is the importance they place on that right; no-one is excluded or ignored.

And finally, each person dips their little finger in purple ink before they leave the polling station.  It is a precaution to prevent anyone from voting more than once, but it was a powerful aesthetic; old people, teenagers, men, women, disabled people, families, all leaving with their little fingers raised in their air.  We have made our voices heard.

We travelled around San Juan, one of twenty-two Parroquias that make up the west side of Caracas, with ten more in the generally wealthier east of the city.  At the three main polling stations in San Juan, queues of people lining up to vote stretched around the block.  Hundreds of people.  We stopped off at one, and took a walk down the street.  People lined up on one side of the road selling fresh juices, empanadas and papelitos, and on the other side, with the IDs in hand, ready to make their choice.  The diversity of people was beautiful to see, as was their patience and relaxed nature.  At 8am on a Sunday morning, it seemed as if no-one was at home.  The streets were filled with queues of voters.

“There are a lot of poor people in San Juan,” one person told me, “so we will do well here,” referring to Chavez’ re-election bid.  ”In other areas, where there are more opposition… there might be more problems.”

Later in the morning, we travelled to the barrio 23 de enero, where Hugo Chavez was due to register his vote.  A large crowd gathered to welcome him, after queuing for many hours to vote themselves, at the main polling station in the barrio.  Again, I was offered help to go and vote as soon as I went to look around.  When Chavez arrived in the early afternoon, the response was incredible.  Mothers with newborn babies in their arms and young children of primary school age led the chants; “Uh, Ah, Chavez no se va.”  Chavez is not going.

“Before Chavez,” one person told me, “every President used to go and vote down in the city.  Now, he comes up to 23 de enero, where the poor people live.”

After a tiring first half of the day, we took some time to eat and relax at home before the evening.  Undoubtedly, there are many problems that continue to be prevalent in Venezuela, but I felt a sense that I was witnessing something historic.  It could be argued that although power is being put into ordinary people’s hands here, it could be happening more quickly.  However, for the short term at least, people feel an emotional connection with Chavez and, importantly, that he is going to deliver on what he says.  It is difficult for us to imagine a political figure that continues to draw such huge support after fourteen years in power, but that could be because we have never had one who doesn’t continuously lie and work to protect the status quo and financial profits above all else.  Some people say that the process of power passing to the people needs to happen more quickly.  Last night, however, it seemed that Venezuelan people were truly aware of how powerful they had become.

By 7pm, voting was still taking place.  The National Electoral Council spoke on television to confirm that they were the only organisation that could release the official results of the election, and that any supposed “exit polls” should be ignored (especially considering polling on the day of elections is banned).  The opposition had tried to point towards one such indicator earlier in the day, as had been expected, but it’s impact was minimal.  The situation had remained calm and peaceful throughout the day.  The results were far from being announced, then, but already we could hear celebrations in the streets.  Car horns being pressed down, fireworks exploding in the sky, people exploding into cheers of jubilation.  Who would have guessed that we still didn’t know who had won?

The army of support for the Chavez government clearly knew something that we didn’t.  As we turned right onto Avenida Urdaneta, we saw people leaning out of cars waving Venezuelan flags, honking their horns incessantly.  At the first major junction we came to, huge crowds wearing the famous red t-shirts were stopping traffic to celebrate.  A massive convoy of motorbikes came zooming up the avenue and halted at the traffic lights, waving flags and posters to the delight of the crowd.  We continued walking; every hundred yards or so were further crowds.  Red t-shirts, purple little fingers.  Families were out with their children.  Most people didn’t seem to have a care in the world about the official results; they already knew they had won.  There was not a single opposition supporter to been in the streets.  Without exaggerating, I did not see one.  It was a striking contrast with preceding weeks.

We continued walking.  At Plaza Bolivar, we saw crowds gathering around black and white television screens and at the windows of buildings.  Still, no results.  As we got back out onto Avenida Urdaneta, the crowds were beginning to build.  We were nearing Miraflores; the Presidential Palace.  Then, we saw it.  Thousands of people had gathered outside, and the celebrations had begun.  An electric atmosphere paved our way towards the front of the crowd.  People were dancing to music, huge Venezuelan flags glided through the air and the no se va chants, of course, continued.

 We stayed for around an hour and half at the front of the crowd, struggling to believe or take in what was going on around us, before making our way a little bit back down the main avenue to where barbeques were sizzling.  Food is never neglected here, whatever the occasion, and we thoroughly enjoyed our yucca and meat cooked in banana leaves, sitting on the pavement in the shadows of Miraflores.

“Do you think we will even know when the results come out,” I asked Finlay, my younger brother, as fireworks continued to shoot into the night sky, “or maybe they’ve come out already?”

“No way,” he replied, “we will definitely know.  We just will.”

Less than a minute later, he was proved correct.  We were standing in an open space near the middle of the crowd, and we felt a wave of energy swoop from one end of the avenue to the other.  In a matter of three seconds, people were going crazy.  We knew, everyone knew.  Chavez had won.

We ran back towards Miraflores, where crowds were swelling now.  In the hours that followed, however, something very special and that I will be unlikely to forget happened.  As the sense of celebration, anticipation and jubilation grew, the crowds surged through the lines which had separated us from the palace itself.  After racing down, and eventually pushing through the huge metal gates, we were inside the grounds of Miraflores itself.  It was by no means a simple task; the pressure of the crowds was so great that it seemed as if the gates had literally burst.  It took a great effort to protect people from being crushed, but we were successful.  How could I forget the woman walking next to us, with her belly surely at least eight months pregnant, turning to my brother and asking if he needed help with carrying my wheelchair through?

There was no confrontation with soldiers here, because they are on the same side as the people.  On the roof of the Miraflores building across the road, soldiers waved giant flags and waved their hands.  People climbed up onto anything; traffic lights, platforms, even hanging from the metal gates we had come through.  Palestinian, Cuban and Venezuelan flags were held aloft.  Chanting continued as if we had only just begun.  On the balcony of Miraflores above us, nicknamed the “People’s Balcony” a microphone was being set up.  The implication was clear.

At around 11pm, Hugo Chavez came out to address the crowd, surrounded by family on both sides.  As usual, he began by bursting into a rendition of the Venezuelan national anthem, and on this occasion was joined for an extended version.  He spoke for over an hour, and was met with the type of response you might expect for someone who has just received the backing of millions of people, again.  It is difficult thing to describe, but at times, it was hard to hear the words from his mouth.

He spoke for over an hour, on Latin American unity, on deepening the revolution, on  socialism being practised today in Venezuela, on Venezuela being independent today, and on re-conciliation with the opposition.  Finally, he spoke of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela, and raised Bolivar’s sword into the air.  After exiting, he came back out for an encore, waving and hugging a Venezuelan flag in his arms.

“I am nothing without the people,” Hugo Chavez said, from the balcony of Miraflores.

That is what the people of Venezuela had proved, with their actions, and it was inspiring and touching to see.  They have brought this process to where it is today, and they will decide its future path.

We made our way home with the tides of the crowd.  Their party continued long into the night.

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