The Metamorphosis of Chavista Marches

VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos shares her thoughts and experience on the famed "machinery" behind massive Chavista marches.

It’s been a couple of years since I last went to an official rally called either by the government or the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

I stopped attending before the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, but the lockdown has become the perfect excuse to stay home.

In the past I got to witness first-hand all the moving parts that go into Chavista marches, the largest street mobilizations this country has ever seen.

Chavismo, as is well known, emerged as an effusive, effervescent movement out on the streets. But as time went by, the PSUV’s so-called “mobilization machinery” got ever more fine-tuned to plan each rally down to the smallest detail.

Meeting points were set up close to important public offices and also in a way that would “shield” central and western Caracas from any opposition plans after several violent precedents. This way, people from all over the city could join.

The marches might have looked scattered in the beginning, but the master plan always had a single final destination that would be filled to the brim in a few hours. And to ensure massive participation there was a kind of chain-of-command.

In the local context, the state coordinator of agitation and propaganda would reach out to the Bolívar-Chávez Battle Units (UBCh, local party cells), which then conveyed the message to the party leaders in a given parish or commune, then in a given street, all the way to those running social programs like the CLAP (subsidized food).

When it came to the public administration, the ministry would inform all its directors, who would get in touch with the managers under them. It trickled down all the way until the “invitation” reached all the personnel. In some spaces, attendance was optional. In others it was taken more seriously, some going as far as taking photos.

I especially recall the last rally I attended. It was Workers’ Day, May 1st, 2019. I had a management position in a state media outlet and was quite overwhelmed at the time. With wages dropping and dropping, people were leaving in droves, leaving the remainers like me carrying two or three times the normal workload.

Then, my boss decided to organize a breakfast to “honor” the workers. This meant a couple of croissants with cream cheese, a little juice box and a piece of fruit. She even rented an office in the center of Caracas for this purpose.

As part of the “deal,” it was my responsibility to ensure everyone walked from breakfast to the O’Leary Plaza (some 15 blocks), where President Nicolás Maduro would deliver his customary speech.

I gave my word that I would make it happen, but along the way there were too many subway stations and little by little the workers started to “escape” (they had the courtesy of saying goodbye!). In the end I was almost by myself at the meeting point, where we didn’t even get the usual salary increase announcement. It had been unveiled days before and was way short of expectations.

This march had a farewell feeling for me. Shortly afterwards, I quit this job. In any case, it is still very easy for me to tell apart the spontaneous and millimetrically planned components of a mobilization. You can see it in the eyes of those in attendance if they are enthusiastically marching or just looking for the nearest subway stop to escape.

Sometimes, these “compulsory” invitations blurred any genuine support. It’s like there was a fear of finding out what would happen if it was up to people to decide whether to attend or not. It also generated a certain fear of attending “non-official” rallies.

In fact, in recent years, for International Women’s Day or the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women there have been parallel demonstrations. One from social movements (which identify as Chavista despite their critical stances) and the “official” one. The pressure has made many of my friends attend the official one and even downplay the other. There’s a mix of militancy and discipline that leaves no room for anything else.

Truth be told, I suppose this discipline also has its merits. One way or another, this closing of ranks led to mobilizations and imagery that the press could not possibly manipulate. These were etched in the memories of those who took part and also those who witnessed them, either passing by or from windows and balconies.

These displays of strength are also for the enemy to take note. I would dare say that the biggest recent rallies were only surpassed by the spontaneous and gigantic outpour that saw millions of Venezuelans go out on the streets during the week when Chávez’s funeral proceedings took place.

Still, the most memorable rallies are the ones that have no planning behind them. Such was the one that took place on April 30, 2019, when many of us gathered near Miraflores Presidential Palace despite no one asking us to do so. Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó had a coup attempt going on in the eastern side of town and people immediately sprung into action. Some wanted to figure out what was going on, others were ready for whatever happened, but we all felt that was where we needed to be.

The campaign rallies ahead of the November 21 elections reminded me all of this. They’re not as massive as they used to be, but they’re still larger than the opposition’s. Nevertheless, I’m sure that if they were spontaneous, truly spontaneous, we would hear some different slogans. But the loyalty is still there, much to the chagrin of the corporate media. No “machinery” would survive otherwise.

Many claim that electoral campaigns are not the time to debate or call things into question, but it would be good that, after the vote, we get back out there to make clear what we need as well as what we demand, or want to build, alongside the new authorities. But above all, we need some spontaneity back on the streets.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.