[Marxism] Chavismo takes a hit

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 6 07:29:13 MST 2008

Chavismo Takes a Hit
By Alexander Cuadros

December 5, 2008

On Sunday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made two bold 
declarations. He announced his intention to press ahead with a 
constitutional referendum that would do away with presidential term 
limits--one year after voters narrowly rejected a similar reform--and 
demanded that Colombia immediately withdraw its consul in Maracaibo, 
Venezuela's second-largest city. "Either they take him out of here or 
I'll throw him out," Chávez said.

A secretly recorded conversation between consul Carlos Galvis Fajardo 
and an adviser to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had been broadcast 
the day before on the state-run television channel, VTV. Galvis spoke 
of his satisfaction with the results of Venezuela's regional 
elections on November 23, in which opposition candidates won, among 
other prizes, the governorship of the oil-rich state of Zulia and the 
mayor's seat in its capital, Maracaibo. Though the conversation 
revealed no substantive evidence of Colombian meddling in Venezuelan 
territory, the VTV presenter assured viewers that "their objective is 
clear: to infiltrate with assassins and paramilitaries, something 
that Manuel Rosales"--the outgoing two-term governor of Zulia, now 
mayor-elect of Maracaibo--"is up to his eyebrows in."

At least on the surface, Chávez's two characteristically gutsy moves 
that day might seem unrelated. Yet they both serve his goal to hold 
onto power amid tumbling oil revenues, steadily deteriorating public 
services, and skyrocketing inflation and crime. (Inflation in 
Venezuela is the highest in Latin America, and according to The 
Economist, the homicide rate has tripled there in the last ten 
years.) In December of 2006, Chávez ran against Rosales for the 
presidency and won by twenty-six points--a landslide. But in the 
regional elections last month, gubernatorial candidates for the PSUV, 
Chávez's party, won just 52.5 percent of the popular vote nationwide. 
Out of Venezuela's twenty-three states, the opposition now controls 
five, along with the mayor's seat in Caracas--and together these 
account for 40 percent of the country's population.

Chávez had led a dogged campaign in the preceding weeks to discredit 
Rosales and his protégé Pablo Pérez, who won the governorship of 
Zulia. Still, even after Chávez vowed to throw Rosales in jail for 
alleged corruption, claimed to have evidence the opposition leader 
was planning to assassinate him, and called him (among other things) 
a "tumor in the body of Zulia state," Rosales won the mayoralty in 
Maracaibo by more than twenty points. As Chávez, undaunted, continues 
his quest to undermine opposition legitimacy, many are now asking the 
question: Is Chavismo finally on the wane?

Maracaibo is a charmless sprawl of 3 million people not far from the 
Colombian border, and popular wisdom maintains that it is the hottest 
city in Venezuela--on a cloudless day, it can be sweltering by 8 a.m. 
It also produces about half of the country's oil. Every day off the 
shores of Lake Maracaibo you can see massive tankers lumbering in and 
out, weighed down by thick Venezuelan crude.

The PSUV's Giancarlo DiMartino was Maracaibo's mayor for the past 
eight years, and on November 23 he lost by about eight points in his 
bid against Pérez for the governorship of Zulia. After DiMartino's 
final campaign rally in a poor neighborhood called El Marite in the 
northwest of Maracaibo, I spoke to residents milling about on lumpy 
asphalted streets that slowly gave way to mud. Sitting on an 
upside-down bucket in front of a modest barred-in house, a 
28-year-old welder named Luís Castro told me, referring to DiMartino: 
"You can see that the man has done things for the neighborhood. It's 
safer. This area was too dangerous. The streets were dark, and he put 
in street lamps--now you can walk around at night." He and other 
residents also emphasized the recent establishment of local 
"missions"--government-funded community centers that provide, among 
other things, education and medical assistance. There is a hospital 
nearby, but residents could rarely afford the fees; now they are 
treated for free at a clinic manned by Cuban doctors. Hospital El 
Marite, however, like many hospitals throughout Venezuela, has 
deteriorated in recent years. Castro told me that now people call it 
"El Morite," which basically means that as far as locals are 
concerned, it is a place you go to die.

Even as many of Venezuela's poorest have seen their lives improve, 
mismanagement and corruption have become hallmarks of Chávez's 
government. In Maracaibo, residents complained to me that with 
DiMartino as mayor, the city's once-efficient system of garbage 
collection had at times completely broken down; trash could pile up 
for days. There were often shortages of coffee, milk and sugar. In 
some poor neighborhoods like El Marite people claimed to have seen 
crime drop, but people in the rest of the city assured me that it was 
worse than ever, and that sometimes the municipal police failed to 
respond when called. Public works are in a half-finished state 
throughout the city. Two days before the election, DiMartino 
inaugurated a "community prevention center" that would have put 
police in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the south, but the parking 
lots had yet to be paved and the offices were empty of equipment.

The most extravagant example of mismanagement is the Maracaibo Metro, 
for which construction began in 2004. According to government 
figures, more than $700 million has been spent building Line One. But 
only four of the six stations are operational, and just 2,500 people 
ride it every day. When I drove by in a taxi one night at rush hour, 
the polished, well-lit stations, adorned with modern-looking inverted 
arches and enclosed on either side by high chain-link fences, were 
almost completely empty of passengers. Worse, the two and a half 
miles of aboveground tracks have essentially walled off two parts of 
the city from each other, as there are no bridges or tunnels along 
the entire stretch. Businesses have failed all along the Metro 
because of the reduced client base, and dozens of homes have been 
destroyed by poorly planned construction.

It is not just the middle class that is against Chávez, as opposition 
victories in former Chavista strongholds such as the Caracas slum of 
Petare show. On election day in Maracaibo I met a young woman who 
works at a Bolivarian high school, as she waited to vote in a poor 
neighborhood called Santo Domingo in the south of the city. She had 
supported Chávez until last year's constitutional reform, which in 
addition to eliminating presidential term limits would also have 
given Chávez the power to create new federal and municipal 
regions--parallel to democratically elected governments--for which he 
could handpick the leaders and assign new budgets. (This measure, and 
a slew of others rejected by voters in the referendum, were passed by 
decree in July of this year.) She said, "What Chávez wants is to keep 
himself in power, but one person alone can't govern a country. I 
support him in some things, but not in everything." These were things 
she could not speak of freely at the school, she said, for fear of 
losing her job.

Margarita López Maya, a historian at the Central University of 
Venezuela, told me in a telephone interview that Venezuelans were 
tired of polarization. She lamented the "impoverished discourse" on 
both sides. It is an argument, she said, framed either in terms of 
unwavering support for the president or an abstract idea of 
"democracy" that ultimately boils down to voting against Chávez 
rather than voting for a coherent alternative vision.

Perhaps more important than the question of whether Chávez's support 
is waning--a point on which analysts I spoke to disagree--is whether 
there is any way to bridge the chasm between the two camps. There are 
"dissident" elements that made a relatively strong showing in the 
regional elections, but López Maya said she was pessimistic about a 
third way. "You have the opposition members who were visible during 
the coup and the oil strike"--in 2002, the opposition followed a 
failed two-day coup with an oil strike that paralyzed the economy for 
months--"and these sectors are highly discredited." She went on, "I 
honestly don't see Manuel Rosales as an attractive person for the 
popular sectors who might want to begin to leave the officialist 
side." These are "disenchanted" people, she said, for whom "Chávez's 
government has become very weak in terms of its inability, for so 
many years, to fulfill its expectations and promises, in terms of its 
corruption, the level of crime in the cities." But there is still no 
one to represent them. "These are dark times," she said.

I recalled my conversation with DiMartino, the perpetually sunburned, 
heavyset Chavista mayor, a couple of days before the election. Under 
the flourescent glare of a little back room at the local station for 
VTV, I asked him why he thought that two local Bolivarian 
Circles--Chavista social organizations--had swung their support from 
him to the opposition candidates. He called them "mercenaries" and 
said, "They're the typical individuals who take advantage of 
campaigns to earn fifty, sixty million Bolívares. We're talking about 
$20,000." So they were bribed? "Yes." And there's proof? "Yes, of 
course," he assured me. I did not get to see this proof, but when I 
spoke to Edwin Méndez, a spokesperson for one of the two Circles, 
together representing about 9,000 people, he told me he had withdrawn 
his support because the municipal government had completely shut them 
out and ignored their requests for assistance with community 
projects. He still supports Chávez.

I asked DiMartino if it was possible to continue supporting the 
president, as Méndez does, but not support his candidates at a local 
level. "It's a contradiction," he said. "We're talking about black 
and white here." 

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