From Barinas to the 2024 Presidential Elections

VA columnist Ociel López looks at some of the consequences of the opposition victory in the Chavista stronghold earlier this month.

The cycle of “mega-elections” in Venezuela closed with the January 9 Barinas governor election.

The result was overwhelmingly favorable to the ruling party, which won 19 of the 23 governorships and 210 of the 335 mayoralties.

This ample advantage, however, had a symbolic gap with the Barinas election. The election was repeated following a Supreme Court decision to disqualify the leading [opposition] candidate, Freddy Superlano. The repeated vote saw an opposition victory that was not foreseen by most analysts.

Barinas is a state in the southwest of the country where Hugo Chávez was born. Chávez also recreated many Barinas history episodes in his national politics. One such episode is the 1859 Santa Inés Battle, which was taken as an example in the campaign against the 2004 recall referendum called by the opposition. Hand-in-hand with the late leader’s father and two brothers, Chavismo ruled Barinas for 22 years.

Following the January 9 outcome, an interesting debate has emerged both within Chavismo and the opposition concerning the 15 point difference between the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) candidate Sergio Garrido and former-foreign minister and Chávez son-in-law Jorge Arreaza. This debate included several interpretations of Venezuela’s democracy, which has clearly taken a step towards institutionalization or political normalization.

Impact on the opposition

The moderate opposition was the obvious winner of the Barinas contest. With all political actors, including the most radical, recognizing the result, the electoral route is shown to be the propitious one to resolve conflicts in Venezuela. From now on, it will be very difficult for the most radical extremists to argue in favor of abstentionism or violent tactics such as a coup d’état or invasion.

Garrido has recognized President Nicolás Maduro as president, something that his party had been slow to do in the past. Meanwhile, the Popular Will party extended its support for Juan Guaidó and his “interim presidency” for another year in early January.

The new Barinas governor also openly failed to recognize Guaidó as “president,” which implies that he is located in the moderate political strip of institutional recognition alongside the other elected opposition governors.

As it is, the opposition still has to travel a regularization path away from its subversive efforts, separating itself from the “interim government” and moving towards a legal and public avenue in which it opts to participate in the democratic game with the existing institutions.

With this strategy of participation, the combined opposition managed to get a million more votes than Chavismo in the regional elections of 2021.

The opposition’s mismanagement of its victories has historically been its downfall. Soon we will see if the triumph in Barinas produces political cohesion or disagreement within its ranks.

One issue which may bring about a possible disagreement is the activation of a recall referendum [against President Maduro]. This issue is already dividing the different opposition fractions: while it may be the scenario they all dreamed of, it currently looks unviable and – due to the extreme organizational and political weakness of all opposition structures – could lead to a new defeat.

Debate within Chavismo

Chavismo as a whole will also have to reorganize its discourse and realign its forces to seek new voters in 2024 or win back those it has abandoned. This includes both the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) and others, who have all seen their vote deflated.

The attempt to reorient Chavismo’s political discourse means recognizing that the places where it lost most support were its rural comfort zones. We are not only talking about the defeat in Barinas but also in Cojedes, as well as a setback in Apure and in other agrarian states where Chavismo lost terrain.

At first glance, it would seem that the shift in economic policy has taken its toll in what used to be its rural strongholds. Increasingly liberal policies from the PSUV, in addition to alliances with landowners and shortages of inputs and gasoline cost the PSUV the campesino vote.

In this analysis the economic issue is vital. An economic shift like the one that is taking place in Venezuela cannot be brought about without impacting politics, which in turn is reflected in the electoral contests.

Both Chavismo and the opposition have to set their sights on the 2024 presidential elections. That is, of course, unless there is no other setback along the way, some unexpected milestone that taints the re-institutionalization of the country or an agonizing confrontation.

Nothing can be ruled out. The US government has not changed the policy executed by Donald Trump to recognize the “interim government” despite its factual non-existence and indefinite mandate. We may have to wait for the US midterm elections to see any changes in this regard.

Here in Crisis & Critique we will be closely watching how forces and discourses reconfigure in this new cycle.

Ociel Alí López is a Venezuelan researcher who has published numerous written and multimedia works. He analyzes Venezuelan society for several European and Latin American media outlets. He is also co-founder of the alternative state television station Avila TV and recipient of the CLACSO/ASDI research prize and the Luis Britto García literature award.

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