Four days from now, the votes should be counted in Venezuela’s first presidential election in six years and people can stop speculating about how the race will turn out. Unlike the vast majority of elections around the world, this one could change the politics, policy, and even demographics of a significant-sized and reasonably important chunk of the world – and the place that may have more accessible oil than anywhere else.
For now, we’re in the campaign, and from what little I have seen in two days in Venezuela, the excitement is greater on the side supporting incumbent President Hugo Chávez, rather than challenger Governor Henrique Capriles.
That is exactly the opposite of what I’ve read on most of my favorite English language websites about the country, but it’s the truth. To put it very simply, Capriles’ campaign looks like a very well run, professional campaign, and not a grassroots movement. Chávez’s campaign has elements of both.
For example, as I have wandered through Caracas’ richer east end and poorer center for the last two days, I have seen more cars and buses decorated with Chávez slogans than with Capriles slogans. I see very little graffiti, stickers, or lapel pins in favor of either side. I see a lot of people wearing pro-Chávez T-shirts that read “Misión 7 Octubre,” a reference to election day. I see far more street stencils for Chávez. I see people driving around supporting Chávez in vehicle and motorcycle caravans. At a kiosk in the center of Caracas today, a worker offered me a silkscreen print of “CHAVEZ” if I came back with a T-shirt. Tonight in Altamira Plaza, the spiritual heart of the upscale east end, there was a very good punk and ska show in favour of Chávez.
Obviously the government can pay for all the logistics of this – the sound systems, posters, and so forth – if Chávez’s PSUV party happens to fall short of funds. And it can oblige workers to go to big marches. And some of the lack of Capriles marketing may be that people are scared to show support for him, after seeing the fate of those who opposed the government in past elections. But it’s hard to get people to go out and blow horns in favor of someone if they really don’t support him. The musicians’ sound system may have been paid for by the state, but they weren’t paid to say “Viva Chávez carajo.”
Several times, I have been around grassroots movements to force out an unpopular machine candidate. I recall the mayoral insurgencies in San Francisco that almost got Tom Ammiano and Matt Gonzalez into the mayors’ office. Both failed, sure – but they were real movements, with a vast pack of people working day and night to bring about change. With Capriles, I see some volunteers in the street, but they are giving out party-produced flyers, not hand-written screeds or home-made stickers. These seem to be people who are glad to have found a possible savior from Chavismo, rather than people who are excited to support their candidate.
I am working with very few hours of observation, but up to now, I don’t see the Capriles excitement everyone is talking about. And with voter turnout as a major variable in the outcome of the race, that lack of excitement could matter on Sunday.