Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 17 - The chavista llanos

Now we move into pro Chavez territory. But we also move into areas where Chavez feels so sure of himself that some of his abuses are the clearest to see. If normally most of these states should remain safely into chavismo hands, surprises are possible and highly interesting.

Chavez is a llanero president. But so was Luis Herrera Campins (1978-1983). From these two presidents out of the Llanos as a people we are justified to remain weary of any future candidate coming from the area: both administrations have been economic disasters.

The Llanos are the great plains of Venezuela, a wide expanse that got its own qualifying name such as the Pampas or the Chaco did. If we share them with Colombia, the Llanos remain mostly a Venezuelan affair. Politics in the Llano are not held like elsewhere: this is the land of the caudillo by excellence even though few reached ultimate power. See, the llanero is interested in controlling his habitat but not much beyond it. However whenever the llanero decided to spread outside of its lands, consequences were to be paid for Venezuela.

Historically the Llanos have only figured heavily in Venezuelan history during the independence wars, first a civil war and second as the decisive factor in the revolutionary armies. The Venezuelan Second Republic was destroyed by a Spaniard, Boves, who somehow managed to rally to him the rough llaneros, most still riding these days without a saddle. His early and fortunate death gave its chance to Paez to gain control of the llaneros and bring them on the side of the revolution. But when Paez and others did not like the life presidency intentions of Bolivar, nor the increasing influence of the Bogota gentry, Paez by then was powerful enough to allow Venezuela to split and become a separate nation in 1830. Then the few surviving llanero went back to their great plains. Since then the Llanos strove to perpetuate its legend of roughness, where democracy did matter little. This culture gave us the “great Venezuelan novel”, Doña Barbara or Romulo Gallegos who narrates how border line civilization barely held until the XX century. Even today as Polar and Direct TV have reached small corners of the Llanos, it still has a feeling of remoteness and legend that contribute in part to the aura of Chavez. Well, at least the barbarous side so much in display during this campaign.

Chavez is a pure product of the Llanos, from his speech cadenzas to his value set. But he is of the Doña Barbara school, not of the Santos Luzardo. That is, his creed is the rough caudillo who imposes his will. Passing through army barracks did not do a thing to tame his autocratic temper. But the llanero responds to that and Chavez has been getting some of his best percentages in the Llanos state, his home state of Barinas, the low land FARC infested Apure, small Cojedes, and the agricultural power houses of Guarico and Portuguesa. Today this still holds and the only trouble Chavez faces is from dissidence, not from a real civilized opposition as in other Venezuelan places: what we see is the local caudillo facing the Caracas one. That two of thee local caudillos are women does not change a thing: we are in Doña Barbara territory.


This state which is half under water at rainy season is also a state where the FARC roams free with the complicity of the Venezuelan army. Corruption, traffic of influence, violence and blackmail are the rule. The sitting governor, Jesus Aguilarte, running for reelection is a Chavez faithful and seems set to win again. Opposing him there is a woman, Miriam de Montilla, who used to be a Venezuelan senator before Chavez and whose husband was also an ex-governor. But to add to their troubles an ex governor, Lippa, who was barred from running by Clodosvaldo is not happy with the situation and was running his won man. This division also appears at town hall levels. Safe in the Chavez column.

We can note that it is a state were the agrarian vote goes heavily to chavez: the SI took 61.2%. And yet, the only serious town, San Fernando, gave the SI only 53.5%. Thus even in deep chavista states, the following is not as blind as one would think.


Here amazingly an ex governor, beaten twice, is trying to make yet another comeback. Galindez is helped by the fact that the outgoing governor, reaching term limits, is quite a scoundrel. Not only Yanez Rangel is rarely seen in the state since his reelection, but he is involved in many of the scandals surrounding the maletagate of the 800,000 USD. Apparently that does not seem to be a problem for local chavistas who are happy supporting the candidate that Chavez picked up from the primaries as no one managed a clear victory. Teodoro Bolivar is the name. Early in the campaign Galindez seemed to be ready for a comeback but it seems that misiones and paybacks are stronger and lately the race has been close. I suspect that too many people who depend too much from the state after a spat of rural invasions in 2004 (El Charcote was in Cojedes) will vote for Chavez appointee anyway. Not even the collapse of the Olympic villa at San Carlos barely two years after completion seem to upset the local chavistas. Like Apure, Cojedes is a rather spineless state where people might be getting what they deserve after all. Though like Apure we can also observe that the state cpaital and only city of sorts voted ten points less for the SI than the state average.

Although some polls still give Galindez the edge I just do not see it. Chavez does not even bother visiting the state. Maybe the polls reflect more the situation of San Carlos who could well go to the opposition.


We now start discussing three interesting states where the main challenge to chavismo does not come from the opposition but from a dissidence. Guarico was held by the PPT governor Manuitt. He certainly was no prize, accused of covering up a violent police who might have killed more than just criminals. A National Assembly was even called to investigate but apparently Chavez himself ordered to stop the proceedings. As such Manuitt escaped what seemed to be a sure expulsion. But that was not enough to garner his gratitude. When Manuitt announced that he wanted Guarico to remain PPT, preferably through a relative of his, Chavez said no and send as PSUV candidate the ineffable William Lara, ex communication minister, a big failure in his own right. This was a mistake as the PPT and MVR almost got the same amount of votes in 2004 (PODEMOS got much less votes in Aragua and Sucre than the MVR in 2004).

See, Lara might have been born in El Sombrero of Guarico, but all his life took place in Caracas. He even run in 2000 for Miranda governor, and was elected Miranda representative! In Guarico the llanero mentality does not forgive easily such transgressions, even if they come from the hand of Chavez. That he was a lousy communication minister has not helped much his credits in the area. Yet, Chavez has spent enough time campaigning in Guarico with Lara in his shadows that polls are now too close to call in the state.

The Manuitt camp was of course unwilling to accept such a poor candidate as Lara who discovered Guarico as he campaigned. So since Manuitt was subject to term limits he decided to run his daughter in the PSUV primaries. She barely lost, called fraud and decided to run on her own. All smiled but the girl did manage a decent campaign and now we do not know who will win the contest (though she was leading for a while). I saw Lenny Manuitt on TV. I must say that I was favorably impressed: her father might be a crook and an uncouth character but he educated his daughter, a young, articulate, appealing candidate. She has raised above the PPT ideology and has managed to present herself as the true local candidate with the required pragmatism, which might have hurt her among the PPT voter who is more attached to Chavez rhetoric of class warfare.

The opposition without anyone to field thought it was pulling a fast one by running Reynaldo Armas, a local folk singer. But his candidature floundered fast and no poll gives him more than 20% of the vote. In fact a case has been made that if he were to withdraw Lenny Manuitt would win without trouble. That Armas candidacy will be in fact a major set back for the opposition who proves that in the Llanos it cannot even find suitable candidates. Guarico will remain chavista or PPT for at least another 8 years before the opposition can mount a viable challenge.

There are two urban centers of interest in Guarico: the state capital San Juan de los Morros who the opposition barely missed in 2004, and Valle de La Pascua one fo the few cities truly deep in the Llanos (San Juan de Los Morros, as the name indicates is on the hilly edge of the Llanos). As it is now a routine observation, these two cities gave less to the SI than the rural areas of the state. Could one be won by the opposition? A must if it wants in 8 years form now mount any challenge. The odds are not clear. The opposition might have managed unity in more than half of the districts which should give it an edge against a deeply divided chavismo. But that same divide might encourage people not to waste their vote and chose Lenny Manuitt allies as a lesser evil. By the same token the opposition might be wept away at the local legislature. Truly, Guarico is one of those text books cases on how not to opposer the chavista machine.


Portuguesa used to be the breadbasket of Venezuela. But it is not that prominent anymore. Once controlled by the MAS, Portuguesa was an easy pick for chavismo even if it had to rally first Antonia Muñoz who run for the constituent assembly as an independent and got elected. Chavismo decided wisely to recruit her instead of fighting her then and she has served as governor for 8 years. But her succession by a personal appointee of Chavez, Wilmar Castro Soteldo, is far from certain. Not to mention that the second term of la "negra" Muñoz was less than stellar.

The story here is that the PPT is also running a dissident candidature through Bella Petrizzo. Early in the campaign she run quite well and was ahead in the polls. Portuguesa was in fact the state where Chavez started getting personally involved in the campaign and attacked savagely the PPT and the Communist Party who also support Petrizzo. It seems to have made an effect: the imposed candidate of Chavez has overcome Petrizzo in polls, and yet he is not certain of success. The division between pro Chavez rank is deep enough that the opposition candidate, Jobito Villegas, who was not given a chance three months ago could squeak by in what would become a major upset of the campaign since Portuguesa is considered perhaps the most chavista area of Venezuela.

At this time Portuguesa is perhaps the most unpredictable state. Even if the Chavez man is ahead in the polls, he is not comfortably ahead and a sudden shift of voters towards Petrizzo o Jobito could well create a surprise. Interestingly it seems tha tthe divisions are carried at municpal level making the race all over the state very voaltile. Still, in the end I think that Wilamr Castro will prevail, though I am not so sure for Guanare and Acarigua.


I saved this one for last because it has the highest drama content: Chavez own brother is in trouble by a dissident chavista who has made his name by denouncing how the Chavez family got rich in Barinas. The struggle has become so deep, the participation of Hugo himself so marked that the opposition candidate who was thought to have a chance at the beginning had been relegated to a distant third.

Chavez decided that his father should be succeeded by his brother Adan, an academic ideologue who is credited with having brought to Hugo Fidel ideas. Maybe, but Adan is a dour bureaucrat totally lacking charisma. Still, compared to his other brothers deeply involved in “business” Adan was somewhat more presentable. Unfortunately in Barinas everybody knows that the Chavez had nothing a decade ago and that now through “prete noms” (testaferros) they have become among the biggest landowners of Barinas. The rest of Venezuela might not care but in Barinas they do.

The dissident Julio Cesar Reyes comes from a group of folks deeply attached to chavismo as a way to change things. But not like the Chavez getting rich, and thus the split. Amazingly through the campaign his name has grown and now he is reported as leading in some polls. This should not be a surprise anyway, he is the outgoing mayor of Barinas, a district that contains more than 30% of the state population and which reflected him in 2004 with 90% of the vote. Needless to say that a defeat of Adan in Barinas would be the major news of the election outside of Venezuela.


Either through chavismo or dissidence the Llanos are no hunting grounds for the opposition except for the occasional town hall (though a couple of important ones could fall). This is not really surprising as Chavez misiones and “business” have favored that region more than any other. However what is interesting to observe is that Chavez has taken this region so much for granted that he imposed three candidates that had no real roots with the area except form being born there: William Lara, Adan Chavez and Wilmar Castro. His act of arrogance could end up costing him much because even if he wins in the three states he would have created a powerful dissident movement that could become the root to a new opposition branch that would be more united and organized than the current crop. To be continued for sure.

-The end-

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