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Election Diary,Venezuela:The Ballot and the Bullet

Bolivarian revolution

October 08, 2012
*Election Diary, Venezuela*
The Ballot and the Bullet



*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, *harina *Pan 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< http://caracaschronicles.com/2012/10/06/what-the-set-up-pieces-cant-convey/>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< http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/02/hugo-chavez-strongmans-last-stand>,
who piled unsubstantiated claims upon nonsense to create a sense that the
Chávez campaign was stumbling amid its patent inability to govern the

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
< http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0822354527/counterpunchmaga>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, the *majunches
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

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< http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0822354527/counterpunchmaga>
**, forthcoming from Duke University Press. He can be reached at gjcm(at)