Monday, November 10, 2008

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 14 - The Andes, wasted opportunities for chavismo

In the past four entries we have covered what is roughly known as the "corredor electoral", an symbolic swap of land that contains more than half of the population of the country and as such the more decisive areas at time of General Elections. True, we are facing in barely two weeks local elections but victories in most states of this corridor (1) will give a clear advantage for the next general election, in two years the national assembly. But what is taking place in the smaller, more rural regions that we will be discussing in the next entries is equally important in that the future of chavismo as a permanent political fixture of Venezuela will be played. The first region that we will discuss is the Andes which has been a lost opportunity for chavismo.

Historical outlook

The three states that constitute the Andes region of Venezuela, Tachira, Merida and Trujillo, have a unique administrative feature: they are the states with are the most divided internally. For example Lara, bigger than any of these three states has only 9 districts. Trujillo, the smallest one of the lot might have less districts than the other two but still exhibits 20 districts. There are many historical and geographical reasons for that. The Andes were the most settled pre-Columbian area of Venezuela and thus since colonial times it exhibited a stead population, with a higher density than the rest of the country, more topical, harsher. Also the very fractured nature of the Andes allowed for local diversity from one valley to the other and thus the deep rooted local traditions that justified, I suppose, such a break down of the administrative divisions.

This helped chavismo at first. The Andes had always a quaint reputation for hard working people, nice agricultural output and pleasant tourism destinations. But this also hid the fractured isolation of the area and its relative backwardness. In fact, the Andes were for a long time a land of emigrants to the rest of the country including a string of 4 "presidents" in a row, from 1899 until 1947. To describe the local misery so well hidden behind more glamorous areas such as Merida I can highly recommend a strange novel written in English, The Hacienda. The author, Lisa Saint Aubin de Teran, narrates her life in a Trujillo valley where she is left alone as a young bride to manage an old family estate and "la gente", the workers surviving as they may. Her story, in the mid 60ies when the agrarian reforms of AD had not reached yet Trujillo, is quite harrowing as to how the area was isolated and backward. Things improved some in the 70ies but Trujillo has always been one of the poorest states of Venezuela.

In 2000 the Andes were reluctant in embracing chavismo even though it took the three governorships (the one in Tachira under protest). But in 2004 they went heartily with Chavez in the Recall Election and went on to reelect his governors with good margins. This was considered a surprise but careful analysis would have explained it. Some of the Andes valleys were so abandoned by Caracas that any Mision reaching them made a difference. Considering that the Andinos are a hearty lot, and a honest one, Misiones were also probably better run there than elsewhere in Venezuela. Chavismo in 2004 was set to make the area its first permanent national stronghold. 2 years later Rosales almost won in Tachira and in 2007 Chavez lost the referendum in Tachira and Merida, Tachira margin of loss was an impressive 57 to 43! What happened?

Tachira has been plagued by inefficiency and crime. Once reelected Ronald Blanco stopped worrying about Tachira. The 2004 term saw a continuous increase in crime, kidnapping and guerilla action (FARC and non-FARC). The agriculture production of Tachira was severely damaged and the stupid fights between Colombia and Chavez wrecked the border commerce, an essential element to the prosperity of Tachira. In fact the rejection of Tachira worries much Chavez who is unable to fin a way to stop it since it simply would amount at repudiating some of his most cherished policies.

Merida was lost for similar reasons as Tachira. However its state capital went in 8 years from a tourist Mecca to a polluted traffic nightmare. Now people are starting to avoid Merida, using it only as the airport you must go through before you reach your ultimate destination. Even the world famous cable car has stopped again. But there is also another thing: the hard working honest Andino stock is simply offended by the corruption that has appeared in Venezuela since 2004 once Chavez saw himself in power forever. The Andes are probably, I am willing to bet, the area that resents the most the constant gifts that Chavez sends to undeserving people. Merida is being lost to chavismo mostly on cultural values. Not to mention the ridiculous attempts of chavismo to control the Merida University, the pride of the state.

Trujillo on the other had remains safely pro Chavez. But then Trujillo is the least Andino of the three, more open to the influence of Zulia and Lara. In fact Trujillo is a favorite place for wealthy Maracuchos to buy land and farms. After all the Valera area is not even 4 hours drive from Maracaibo, a fresh country out of the simmering heat of Maracaibo. Trujillo also being the poorest of the three has been more grateful for the Misiones whose appeal is still strong in the state.

Opposition progress?

How will these factors play? The first thing to know is that Andes being a socially conservative area, the traditional AD and Copei parties still exert an influence there and hope to reclaim some terrain. After all Carlos Andres Perez did come Tachira. But UNT who controls Zulia has had high hopes to inherit what it considers the hinterland of Maracaibo. That has not worked out and created difficult opposition divisions that slowly settled in the benefit of older parties such as Copei in Tachira and AD in Merida.

In Tachira Cesar Perez Vivas, a steady but boring politicians, managed to best a glamour journalist supported by UNT. True, he did it because the mayor of San Cristobal, Mendes, was unconstitutionally forbidden from running along Leopoldo Lopez and others. All polls placed him high above any chavista politician. Chavez simply barred him for running on some technicality. As a result the other two major candidates wasted precious time in settling issues until a primary of sorts finally forced UNT to pull the rug form under its man. Now Perez Vivas is steadily campaigning and his numbers raising, helped along by internal divisions of chavismo. He should win. The rest of the state is not as interesting to discuss as it is formed by many small districts. The only big one is the state capital of San Cristobal which should remain in opposition hands. It will be very interesting to know though how many of these small districts are retaken by the opposition. A significant shift towards the opposition would doom the future of chavismo in a state that 4 years ago seemed conquered for good.

In Merida the situation is more complex. There Primero Justicia was also trying to hunt for votes. But unbelievably ex-governor Davila, beaten in 2000 and 2004 managed to get the nod by the untied opposition. I thought of him as a lousy candidate but serious polls indicate that he is gaining!!! Which goes a long way to hint at how deficient the administration or Porras was. In addition there the opposition should take Merida and perhaps the other two main districts of El Vigia and Ejido. Taking these three districts would be a major coup for the opposition which would ensure that Merida remains in the opposition hands for at least 8 years. Note that Ejido and El Vigia have strong agricultural basis and for the opposition to take them back will speak loudly of the failures of Chavez agrarian policies.

In Trujillo chavismo has better chances. Or did it? Here the division within chavismo is the talk of the town, the more so that the opposition has been unable to take advantage of it so far. Chavez imposed his candidate, a lackluster civil servant, who arrived second in the primaries. The winner, Mejias, a better candidate, got the supprot of PPT and the PCV to run anyway. When its candidate started going down in the polls a furious Chavez went to Trujillo to excoriate the PPT and the PCV and start an eventual break up. Trujillo could be a loss for chavismo though not necessarily a loss for the "revolution", whatever that means, if Mejias wins. On the other hand, as expected, UNT did manage to rally the state around its candidate and could be the lonely pick of UNT in the Andes.

For future references, Trujillo has a main district in the city of Valera that could well go to the opposition. As usual, even in pro Chavez Trujillo, the district with the most commerce and industry is not as red as the rest of the state and this time it benefits form a division within chavismo. Its state capital on the other hand I doubt will be lost by chavismo. The largest district of Trujillo is Bocono, of touristic and agricultural vocation. Apparently the trend there is to remain chavista. It will be interesting to see if the combined pro Chavez groups repeat the 2007 referendum number.


The Andes offer a varied political panorama. We have chavismo trying to retain its influence but more and more divided; old parties trying to make a come back and new ones trying to stake a claim. No general trend will emerge on November 23 except a likely weakening of chavismo. The extent of that weakening will be telling as its future in an area of a traditional outlook that surprisingly frayed toward Chavez. Was that permanent or accidental we will soon know.

1) Zulia, Lara, Carabobo, Aragua, Miranda and Caracas, so far 2 for the opposition, 1 for chavismo and 3 to be decided.

-The end-

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