New York Times
November 24, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela — From the hardened slums of this city to some of Venezuela’s most populous and economically important states, many of President Hugo Chávez’s supporters deserted him in regional elections, showing it is possible to challenge him in areas where he was once thought invincible.
SUPPORT ON THE STREETS
A follower of President Hugo Chávez held a portrait of Simón Bolívar, Venezuela's independence hero, in Caracas. The official party won 17 of 22 states on Sunday.
The outcome of Sunday’s vote was the second blow dealt to the president in a year, after voters rejected last December his plan to alter the Constitution to give himself more power. Although it was unclear whether the results would slow his Socialist-inspired revolution or check his power, they could complicate his ambitions to amend the Constitution to allow him to run again.
Mr. Chávez, who has been in power for 10 years, has focused on raising political consciousness across disenfranchised parts of society. Now, voters in a sizable part of Venezuela sent him a message that they wanted not a monopoly on power, but solutions to economic and social ills that are glaringly apparent on their streets.
Though Mr. Chávez’s allies won 17 of the 22 states in Sunday’s vote, his opponents did well in some poor urban areas, and in states like Zulia, where much of Venezuela’s oil is produced; Carabobo, the home of auto manufacturers and petrochemical plants; and Táchira, rich in agriculture and cattle. Mr. Chávez framed the elections as a plebiscite on his evolving revolutionary ideology, but voters appeared to focus on more mundane concerns like inflation, which at more than 30 percent is the highest rate in Latin America, and fears that an economic boom might be sputtering to an end as oil prices plunge, forcing Mr. Chávez to reconsider his spending plans.
Violent crime, an Achilles’ heel for Mr. Chávez, also weighed heavily on voters. While his government no longer releases detailed homicide statistics, private organizations here put the murder rate in Caracas at about 130 per 100,000, about four times the rate in Medellín, Colombia.
In Petare, a sprawling area of slums on the eastern fringe of Caracas, long lines at polling stations snaked into alleyways on Sunday as voters delivered the area, part of a municipality long considered a Chávez bulwark, to Carlos Ocariz, a mild-mannered 37-year-old engineer.
“We punctured the myth that only Chávez can be a champion of the poor,” said Eduardo Ramírez, 61, a political activist in Petare who campaigned for Mr. Ocariz.
“Chávez’s rhetoric is one thing,” he said, “but the reality is another when he does nothing to stop the bloodshed on our doorstep.”
The defeat in some of the slums of Caracas irked Mr. Chávez to the point that he went on state television Monday night, chafing at the election results. Warning the opposition, he said, “Don’t think you control Petare.”
Among the pro-Chávez candidates who lost were members of the president’s inner circle, including Mario Silva, the host of La Hojilla (translation: The Razorblade), a program on state television used to attack Mr. Chávez’s opponents. Sometimes Mr. Silva played taped recordings of opponents’ intimate cellphone conversations or aired their instant-messaging transcripts.
With Mr. Silva trailing in polls ahead of the election, Mr. Chávez threatened to mobilize tanks in Carabobo State in the event of his ally’s defeat, one of many of his menacing comments that linger, as if to remind voters of the vulnerability of their democracy to threats and intimidation.
During the campaign, Mr. Chávez called opponents “traitors” and “swine,” and his government blacklisted almost 300 candidates, preventing them from running in what has been argued to be a violation of the Constitution.
Of course, there are other ways to view the electoral results, since Mr. Chávez’s candidates won most of the states up for grabs.
Even if many of those states have limited political and economic clout, Mr. Chávez remains by far the dominant and most popular figure in Venezuelan politics. The purse strings of public finances throughout the country still rest largely in his hands. His loyalists still control the National Assembly and the Supreme Court.
Moreover, Mr. Chávez has used his decree powers to create laws allowing him to appoint new regional leaders with their own budgets, a move that would deal a blow to the new governors in the opposition. Still, the president’s critics celebrated chiseling away at his power. “Winning the majority of state governorships but losing the key ones cannot be spun as a victory by a man who campaigned as if his life depended on it,” said Pedro Mario Burelli, a former director of Venezuela’s state oil company, Pdvsa.
Another way of viewing the results is to look at a post-election map of Venezuela. Most states are colored red, the color of Mr. Chávez’s Socialist party. Opposition footholds are blue.
The president’s candidates won in the largely rural red states. But in a shift that may point to further erosion of Mr. Chávez’s clout, Venezuela’s cities, and more important, its slums, are in play. How else to explain the victory of the opposition in most of Caracas?
Luís Pedro España, an economist who studies poverty issues, said poor voters here who voted for Mr. Chávez’s opponents had the same access to information, and many of the same complaints about public services, as neighbors in wealthier districts.
“The more modern part of the country wants political change,” he said.
María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting.