Friday, November 21, 2008

The Venezuelan 2008 election: update 20 - untamed Oriente

And thus we reach the last chapter in this regional politics survey. Oriente might be last but not least for me. It is the region I know best in Venezuela because although a Caraqueño by birth, Oriente was my childhood and youth holiday stomping grounds. I almost know every nook and cranny of the shores from Piritu to Rio Caribe, Margarita included. Unfortunately my trips there are much rarer but it is still a magical region for me.

Oriente might include 4 states, Nueva Esparta, Sucre, Anzoategui and Monagas but it is in fact two very distinct regions. Margarita Island and Sucre are as unique as Zulia is, whereas the bottom half of Anzoategui and Monagas are a strange hybrid of fishermen become llaneros. Although for many years AD sort of ruled the area, it was always full of local color such as the strength of URD in Margarita. The thing is that Oriente joined Venezuela late. Until the mid XVII century it was a separate province, Nueva Andalucia, administered directly from Santo Domingo and not Caracas. As such it has always felt a little bit outside of the Caracas, Andes, Llanos trilogy who sorted out among themselves most of Venezuelan history. Not that Oriente did not have some of its heroes, starting by Luisa Caceres de Arismendi who gained a place the hard way in Venezuelan history, and not by sewing a flag. As such Oriente has been like quicksilver for chavismo who at no time has managed to control the 4 states at once. This time it is bound to lose two of them, and with some last minute luck could even lose a third one.


We can start by the easiest state to discuss of the lot. This long held bastion of AD prove that too many of today’s chavistas were AD supporters even if they would like us to believe that they waited for Chavez all their lives. In 2000 Guillermo Call managed to retain Monagas, but in 2004 the pressure was too strong and chavismo allied itself with a local journalist, Jose Briceño, who had formed his own political party based in Monagas only, won. He joined the PSUV eventually and gave the surprise of obtaining one of the highest SI records in 2007. As such he is a shoo in to repeat in Monagas even though at local town halls the total sweep of chavismo is not guaranteed. Indeed, the mayor of Maturin which represents half the inhabitants of the state wanted to become the new governor but did not get the nod. A possible division seem to have been settled but the opposition does not seem to have been able to manage a decent challenge. With Lara, Monagas is thus the safest chavista seat today.

We should not be surprised at that. Monagas main source of revenue is oil, even more so than Zulia. As such for all practical purposes PDVSA rules the state and after the strike of 2002-2003 the rolls were filled up by chavista activists who will do anything to preserve their plum jobs.


The situation becomes more complex here. Already Anzoategui is a two part state: the bulk of the population live close to the Caribbean and can be classified as semi true Orientales (there has been a lot of immigration in the area once oil came). But the Southern part has some of the Llanero style although the area is not properly classified as Llanos, just Llanos Orientales. It is in fact a rather large plateau, Mesa de Guanipa. As an oil state it got rich in the mid XX century (before Monagas) and it also got something of a working force which gave it a leftward tilt. Chavismo took it over in 1998, again in 2000, but the new governor, David de Lima, a major sycophant in his early tenure ended breaking with chavismo. In 2004 AD tried to recover the state through Barreto Sira who almost made it in spite of a huge abstention (52%!). The unexpected winner was Tarek Williams Saab, the poet of the revolution, old human rights activist who easily adopted the repressive nature of chavismo. Amazingly he seems to have strengthened his hold on the state, though the opposition had a role in helping him.

Indeed, Barreto Sira was barred form running in the Clodosvaldo list. But in his rage he wasted a lot of time before backing up the young Primero Justicia mayor of Lecherias. As an AD member PJ is possibly the worst option to back: sometimes I think AD folks would almost prefer to see a chavista sitting on what they think is their due. Eventually things were patched and Gustavo Marcano saw his numbers rise in polls (though some minor figures are still running).

But there was another hitch: El Conde del Guacharo, a.k.a. Rausseo who run for president in 2006 decided to run for governor as an independent. Of course, the points he gets in the polls come mostly from protest and opposition vote. If he desisted in his useless fantasy Marcano would get the polls numbers to defeat Saab. One wonders sometimes if El Conde is not running to recover the chavista electorate for his entertainment complex….

Thus right now Anzoategui seems to remain in chavista fold, even though his governor is one of the most sectarian figures of the regime, very contested within the chavista people. But apparently he has managed to reach and maintain the chavista hard core electorate and if the opposition helps, well, nothing much can be done.

At the local level the picture is more interesting. The mayor of Puerto La Cruz cannot run again and would have loved very much to get the seat of Saab. As such the districts of Barcelona and Puerto La Cruz are up for an opposition possible take over. To this we can add that El Tigre, the largest town inside Anzoategui belongs to the opposition. We cannot discount that at the last minute these local politics could play in the governor race. And even if they are not enough to remove Saab from office, they show that new opposition leadership is emerging and chavismo might not retain that state past 2012. If we are still in a democracy, that is.


Now we move to the real Oriente. Sucre and Nueva Esparta share a lot, culturally, ethnically, historically. Margarita Island was dry and relied too often on continental supplies of produce and water to be collected in Rio Caribe or on the Manzanares river at Cumana. The relationship still exists today, even though tourism in Margarita has made it much more cosmopolitan than Sucre which retains a certain backward outlook.

Sucre is a rather proud state. It has the oldest mainland settlement of the Americas in Cumana. But Cumana is not the oldest continuous settlement as the local natives exerted one of the harshest resistance to the invading Spaniards. Cumana was destroyed several times, and not only by the Natives, by the Dutch who tried to control the salt pans of Araya. Thus Sucre is a state rich in history, heroes and curiosities. It got an important Corsican settlement in Carupano. It has a tar lake. It has many, many earthquakes including a famous fault, Cariaco. It has some of the best cacao in the word. With the Mariscal de Ayacucho, Sucre, the state has a hero second only to Bolivar.

It was rather a surprise when Ramon Martinez from the MAS took over the state who was thought as safe state for AD. When Chavez came to power Martinez was briefly removed form office but he came back strong in 2000 when MAS and Chavez were buddy-buddy. When PODEMOS broke up from the MAS, Martinez followed PODEMOS. He worked hard at Chavez reelection in 2006 and Chavez got his best score in Sucre. But then came the referendum and Martinez broke with Chavez. In fact the NO almost made it with Chavez losing more than 20 points from his 2006 result.

The NO won in Cumana whose lousy chavista mayor, Enrique Maestre, is unaccountably the Chavez nominee to replace Martinez who cannot run again. Martinez reached for AD through an old figure, ex-governor, progressive and now independent, Morales Gil. This strange coalition is in fact very much in the original style of Sucre and seems to have been working. Chavez is so far unable to realize that the tarnished Cumana mayor who could not even win the referendum in his city was not the right candidate. Chavista in their anger at not winning easily a state that they thought theirs even ransacked the town hall of Carupano in a mob action.

Sucre is a very subsidy dependent state though tourism is giving it new resources. But the transition is far from being completed and the reflex to vote for the central government in the hope of getting more subsidies remain. But there is a certain pride in disliking imposed figures that seem to play irreversibly against Maestre. At one point he was reported trailing by more than 15 points. He improved some with all the pressure put by Chavez but Morales Gil seems all but assured to return to his old job of more than one decade ago.

On the local level there are four races to watch for. Two are the most important districts of Carupano and Cumana. But I have picked Mariguitar as an interesting spot to observe. It is a small district on the Golfo de Cariaco who has grown to live a lot from tourism as the weekend refuge for many a Cumana family. And yet it has retained a lot of its old inhabitants who lived decades ago from fishing. The NO won there. The other small district is from the very end of the state, the district where Columbus is claimed to have landed on the mainland for the first time. Guiria is a poor, abandoned area, depending largely on misiones and the like. It is very chavista but it would be interesting to see if Maestre manages to retain the percentile score of 2007.

Nueva Esparta

And we reach the last state of this series of reviews. And perhaps the more fascinating of the lot if we consider the hard work Chavez has been putting in unseating its current governor, Morel Rodriguez.

I think chavismo has got it all wrong in Margarita Island, just as it got it all wrong with Zulia. Chavez does not deal well with tradition and originality and real historical roots. In fact his “socialist revolution” aims at nothing more but to erase individuality, including local peculiarities. His own origins in past void Sabaneta does not prepare him at all to understand the subtleties of original places like Maracaibo or Margarita.

The Margariteño is a man of few words. Not for them the long winded speeches of Chavez. Even in their music, the Polos, there is a laconic intensity who eerily invites reference to the name of the state, Nueva Esparta. Life has always been harsh in Margarita. Beautiful but harsh. From the chronic deficient water supply to the natives forced to fish for pearls and most dead at it, all is difficult. The sea was a harsh mistress too, leaving salted fish and contraband as the only source of income for centuries, under a most inclement sun. An earthquake and tsunami wiped the first Spanish settlement in South America, Nueva Cadiz in Cubagua. Eventually the beauties of the Island made it famous enough to get also some tourism since the years of Perez Jimenez who built the first worthwhile hotel in the island.

Margarita thus does not stand fools easily and I would dare to say that chavismo victory there in 2000 was a fluke quickly corrected in 2004 in spite of the red tide wave that submerged the rest of the country. Now some polls give a handy victory for Morel Rodriguez though I would be weary of any poll made in Margarita as the island is just too diverse. But chavismo has made another major mistake there by naming a “navega’o”. William Fariñas might have great qualities, but for the islanders he is a recent arrival and thus not worthy presiding over their future. It is easy to understand even for a non Spanish speaker the contempt in the word “navegado”, “was sailed in”. That is, the passive form of an intransitive verb does not exist in Spanish and its use in this case means that you were sailed in, that is, you were not even able to come sailing yourself, with the obvious pejorative. Not that you need to be born in Margarita to ever get folks to vote for you, but a couple of decades in the island would help a lot.

It seems that Chavez never dealt with his defeat in 2004, the only state that has escaped him so far from a previous “revolutionary governor”. He thus must have made it a personal point to recover the state even though in size it is the smallest one. It has been good for Morel as the hubris and arrogance of Chavez have been observed live by the islanders who I cannot think were amused. Well, maybe some “navegados”. Unfortunately Morel Rodriguez has not been able to manage the unity for local town halls. Chavismo could have some picks there, unless Morel sweeps the state with more than 60% of the vote, something I understand is possible.

In this respect the district to watch is Garcia, the dormitory of sorts for Porlamar, were workers of the Island can reside as real estate elsewhere is just too expensive. And yet the NO won there last year. If Morel manages to pick that district, then chavismo can say goodbye for a decade to Margarita.


Thus Oriente prospects remain elusive for chavismo. Sucre and Margarita seem to be ready to sail away, while Anzoategui is tenuous hold at best. Only landlocked Monagas, who maybe resembles most the rest of the country, allows the siren songs of chavismo. But then again the boss there is not Briceño but the local head of PDVSA and people are aware of that.

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With this the review is over. Tonight or tomorrow I will post the final updated predictions of VN&V as some things have changed since I started this series. I must say as a personal note that I have enjoyed a lot revisiting all of Venezuela during the research for these posts. I hope that I have been able to convey some of my love for my country through it. I know, I know, it is a corny thing to write but it is Friday, after weeks of exhausting campaign pressure.

-The end-

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