On Sunday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made two bold declarations. He announced his intention to press ahead with a constitutional referendum that would do away with presidential term limits–one year after voters narrowly rejected a similar reform–and demanded that Colombia immediately withdraw its consul in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city. “Either they take him out of here or I’ll throw him out,” Chávez said.
A secretly recorded conversation between consul Carlos Galvis Fajardo and an adviser to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe had been broadcast the day before on the state-run television channel, VTV. Galvis spoke of his satisfaction with the results of Venezuela’s regional elections on November 23, in which opposition candidates won, among other prizes, the governorship of the oil-rich state of Zulia and the mayor’s seat in its capital, Maracaibo. Though the conversation revealed no substantive evidence of Colombian meddling in Venezuelan territory, the VTV presenter assured viewers that “their objective is clear: to infiltrate with assassins and paramilitaries, something that Manuel Rosales”–the outgoing two-term governor of Zulia, now mayor-elect of Maracaibo–“is up to his eyebrows in.”
At least on the surface, Chávez’s two characteristically gutsy moves that day might seem unrelated. Yet they both serve his goal to hold onto power amid tumbling oil revenues, steadily deteriorating public services, and skyrocketing inflation and crime. (Inflation in Venezuela is the highest in Latin America, and according to The Economist, the homicide rate has tripled there in the last ten years.) In December of 2006, Chávez ran against Rosales for the presidency and won by twenty-six points–a landslide. But in the regional elections last month, gubernatorial candidates for the PSUV, Chávez’s party, won just 52.5 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Out of Venezuela’s twenty-three states, the opposition now controls five, along with the mayor’s seat in Caracas–and together these account for 40 percent of the country’s population.
Chávez had led a dogged campaign in the preceding weeks to discredit Rosales and his protégé Pablo Pérez, who won the governorship of Zulia. Still, even after Chávez vowed to throw Rosales in jail for alleged corruption, claimed to have evidence the opposition leader was planning to assassinate him, and called him (among other things) a “tumor in the body of Zulia state,” Rosales won the mayoralty in Maracaibo by more than twenty points. As Chávez, undaunted, continues his quest to undermine opposition legitimacy, many are now asking the question: Is Chavismo finally on the wane?
Maracaibo is a charmless sprawl of 3 million people not far from the Colombian border, and popular wisdom maintains that it is the hottest city in Venezuela–on a cloudless day, it can be sweltering by 8 a.m. It also produces about half of the country’s oil. Every day off the shores of Lake Maracaibo you can see massive tankers lumbering in and out, weighed down by thick Venezuelan crude.
The PSUV’s Giancarlo DiMartino was Maracaibo’s mayor for the past eight years, and on November 23 he lost by about eight points in his bid against Pérez for the governorship of Zulia. After DiMartino’s final campaign rally in a poor neighborhood called El Marite in the northwest of Maracaibo, I spoke to residents milling about on lumpy asphalted streets that slowly gave way to mud. Sitting on an upside-down bucket in front of a modest barred-in house, a 28-year-old welder named Luís Castro told me, referring to DiMartino: “You can see that the man has done things for the neighborhood. It’s safer. This area was too dangerous. The streets were dark, and he put in street lamps–now you can walk around at night.” He and other residents also emphasized the recent establishment of local “missions”–government-funded community centers that provide, among other things, education and medical assistance. There is a hospital nearby, but residents could rarely afford the fees; now they are treated for free at a clinic manned by Cuban doctors. Hospital El Marite, however, like many hospitals throughout Venezuela, has deteriorated in recent years. Castro told me that now people call it “El Morite,” which basically means that as far as locals are concerned, it is a place you go to die.
Even as many of Venezuela’s poorest have seen their lives improve, mismanagement and corruption have become hallmarks of Chávez’s government. In Maracaibo, residents complained to me that with DiMartino as mayor, the city’s once-efficient system of garbage collection had at times completely broken down; trash could pile up for days. There were often shortages of coffee, milk and sugar. In some poor neighborhoods like El Marite people claimed to have seen crime drop, but people in the rest of the city assured me that it was worse than ever, and that sometimes the municipal police failed to respond when called. Public works are in a half-finished state throughout the city. Two days before the election, DiMartino inaugurated a “community prevention center” that would have put police in a crime-ridden neighborhood in the south, but the parking lots had yet to be paved and the offices were empty of equipment.
The most extravagant example of mismanagement is the Maracaibo Metro, for which construction began in 2004. According to government figures, more than $700 million has been spent building Line One. But only four of the six stations are operational, and just 2,500 people ride it every day. When I drove by in a taxi one night at rush hour, the polished, well-lit stations, adorned with modern-looking inverted arches and enclosed on either side by high chain-link fences, were almost completely empty of passengers. Worse, the two and a half miles of aboveground tracks have essentially walled off two parts of the city from each other, as there are no bridges or tunnels along the entire stretch. Businesses have failed all along the Metro because of the reduced client base, and dozens of homes have been destroyed by poorly planned construction.
It is not just the middle class that is against Chávez, as opposition victories in former Chavista strongholds such as the Caracas slum of Petare show. On election day in Maracaibo I met a young woman who works at a Bolivarian high school, as she waited to vote in a poor neighborhood called Santo Domingo in the south of the city. She had supported Chávez until last year’s constitutional reform, which in addition to eliminating presidential term limits would also have given Chávez the power to create new federal and municipal regions–parallel to democratically elected governments–for which he could handpick the leaders and assign new budgets. (This measure, and a slew of others rejected by voters in the referendum, were passed by decree in July of this year.) She said, “What Chávez wants is to keep himself in power, but one person alone can’t govern a country. I support him in some things, but not in everything.” These were things she could not speak of freely at the school, she said, for fear of losing her job.
Margarita López Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela, told me in a telephone interview that Venezuelans were tired of polarization. She lamented the “impoverished discourse” on both sides. It is an argument, she said, framed either in terms of unwavering support for the president or an abstract idea of “democracy” that ultimately boils down to voting against Chávez rather than voting for a coherent alternative vision.
Perhaps more important than the question of whether Chávez’s support is waning–a point on which analysts I spoke to disagree–is whether there is any way to bridge the chasm between the two camps. There are “dissident” elements that made a relatively strong showing in the regional elections, but López Maya said she was pessimistic about a third way. “You have the opposition members who were visible during the coup and the oil strike”–in 2002, the opposition followed a failed two-day coup with an oil strike that paralyzed the economy for months–“and these sectors are highly discredited.” She went on, “I honestly don’t see Manuel Rosales as an attractive person for the popular sectors who might want to begin to leave the officialist side.” These are “disenchanted” people, she said, for whom “Chávez’s government has become very weak in terms of its inability, for so many years, to fulfill its expectations and promises, in terms of its corruption, the level of crime in the cities.” But there is still no one to represent them. “These are dark times,” she said.
I recalled my conversation with DiMartino, the perpetually sunburned, heavyset Chavista mayor, a couple of days before the election. Under the flourescent glare of a little back room at the local station for VTV, I asked him why he thought that two local Bolivarian Circles–Chavista social organizations–had swung their support from him to the opposition candidates. He called them “mercenaries” and said, “They’re the typical individuals who take advantage of campaigns to earn fifty, sixty million Bolívares. We’re talking about $20,000.” So they were bribed? “Yes.” And there’s proof? “Yes, of course,” he assured me. I did not get to see this proof, but when I spoke to Edwin Méndez, a spokesperson for one of the two Circles, together representing about 9,000 people, he told me he had withdrawn his support because the municipal government had completely shut them out and ignored their requests for assistance with community projects. He still supports Chávez.
I asked DiMartino if it was possible to continue supporting the president, as Méndez does, but not support his candidates at a local level. “It’s a contradiction,” he said. “We’re talking about black and white here.”