In Caracas, politicking for the Oct. 7th election is literally a party. Marches of thousands take to the streets; the hottest commodities are the graffiti-styled Chavez campaign shirts, and on a daily basis, gigantic trucks drive through the barrios blaring salsa music and campaign slogans for their candidate on the loud speakers.( https://youtu.be/DJxLi875pSM)
From the outside, it might seem to be an election decided by who has the cooler t-shirt, or the most people in the streets: Capriles, a clean cut young man, who talks of “efficiency” while keeping the “social programs” of the revolution’s past ten years, or Chavez, an outspoken leader who has led the way for gigantic structural shifts in the nation´s infrastructure and focus, with an unprecedented focus on the poorest (majority) of society. The reality, however, is that Venezuelans are fully aware that the two candidates represent radically different directions for the country, and a fear of violence by the 1% underscores the loudspeakers baseline.
Venezuelans live in a schizophrenic society, with two completely different worldviews, divided by wealth, existing within it. On one hand, the country is one of the most consumptive in Latin America, with one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world, (https://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/12/venezuelans-obsessed-with-beauty) rivaled only by their love of baseball. In the barrios of Caracas, however, Venezuelans watch the same soap operas glorifying perfect figures and money, while their kids play baseball with bottle caps in the street. They, too, enjoy a good party, but decades of neo-liberal economic policy have relegated them to the shantytowns.
Which is why Chavez is their celebrity of choice. He made his first public debut as a young officer on trial for a botched coup to throw out the right-wing presidency in 1992, where he vowed a-la-Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” that it was only over “por ahorra,” (for now). (https://youtu.be/VBUo-pYeVfQ) In 1999, he broke a political stagnate that had flipped between the same two political parties for the past 50 years, by running on his own revolutionary third-party ticket, the MVR. His victory broke the traditional power block of the Venezuelan elite, and ushered in the Bolivarian Revolution.
In the past 13 years, Chavez has been elected, re-elected, survived an opposition-led recall referendum, and gracefully accepted an initial loss on his own referendum to extend term limits. All of the past election seasons have reinforced the idea that Chavez is not just a president, but a necessary bulwark pushing forward social reforms. (https://upsidedownworld.org/main/venezuela-archives-35/2889-an-assessment-of-venezuelas-bolivarian-revolution-at-twelve-years) People have associated his policies with their own sense of dignity and better living conditions, as the revolution has literally provided subsidized food for all Venezuelans, instituted free health care and education available in the barrios, and fixed dilapidated buildings so that people can live with dignity. This sense of shared struggle and identification is not based on superficial popularity: his policies are tangible.
Despite Capriles pandering to the “social reforms” of the revolution, the people have not forgotten the real intentions of the Venezuelan elite, who are his staunchest supporters. In 2002, during Chavez´s first term, the opposition attempted a botched coup, initiated by the leaders of industry, facilitated by the private media, and supported by the Bush administration. (https://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela) It failed under a wave of popular support that occupied the palace until rank and file members of the Venezuelan military retook the palace, and Chavez was reinstalled 3 days later. When Chavez started talking about using oil revenue to fund social programs for the Venezuelan people, rather than solely as profit for multinational coffers, the private 1% in charge of the vast majority of the country’s resources shut down the ports and stopped producing oil. (https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2533403.stm) The workers, not the bosses, were the ones who tried to keep the factories running, breaking down the gates and refusing to stop production.
During these initial crises, Chavez became intimately associated with people´s livlihood. He came on national television and talked to the Venezuelan people, giving them something else to watch besides soap operas. He told them if there was no Coca -Cola, to make papelon, a traditional Venezuelan drink. He broke down the issues with understandable analysis, and galvanized a collective sense of resilience. Over the course of his first presidential term, a revolution in consciousness occurred, with political education being transmitted to an entire nation, as they resisted the real-time efforts of the 1% to cripple the revolution.
At the crux of the elections on October 7, is the “rumbo” of the revolution. The question is whether a decade of social reforms will continue, or whether they will be tokenized or eulogized. It is not about bureaucracy or efficiency in the oil industry, but who that money goes to, and who the government works for. There is corruption on all fronts in politics, but there’s no way Capriles, despite his campaigning, will be instituting a poor person’s platform.
Bearing all of this in mind, may the best shirt win.