BARINAS, Venezuela – Iglenda Monzón lost her restaurant due to the prolonged economic crisis in Venezuela. Her daughters emigrated to Colombia to find work and left two sons. She and the boys sometimes go hungry and often have no running water, electricity or gas.
The victory of the governor in the northwestern state of Barinas – where the late President Hugo Chávez was born and his family ruled for more than two decades – has been celebrated by the opposition.
Voters like Monzón who contributed to this victory see ballots as a tool for the change they crave.
“(Change) is by vote, it is the decision of the people … These are our weapons: the vote. They are the only weapons we have, the opposition, “said Monzón, 46.
But the victory has not convinced skeptics who doubt the value of participating in contests that most independent monitors still see deeply in favor of the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
Twice in less than two months, the opposition surprised the ruling party by imposing itself on Barinas. Sergio Garrido, a local leader unknown to most of the country, won a special election held on January 9 after Venezuela’s highest court retroactively disqualified the opposition contender in the usual November competition. who led the vote count.
The November state and local elections were the first of many major opposition parties to participate. The result highlighted the opposition’s dilemma: the government finally accepted a defeat in Barinas, but only after winning most of the other competitions across the country and only after it made things so difficult. to its rivals.
Electoral authorities first let opposition candidate Freddy Superlano run in Barinas, then the high court disqualified him as he appeared to have won. His wife, who was chosen as his successor, was also declared ineligible. She was also his replacement. The previously obscure Garrido finally stood up.
The main opposition coalition, the “Unitary Platform” led by Juan Guaidó, boycotted previous elections, including the re-election of Maduro as president in May 2018, arguing that Venezuela does not have the conditions for a free and fair vote. .
Loyalists in government dominate the electoral authority and the courts, which have often banned or prosecuted leaders who challenge Maduro. And after the government lost control of Congress in 2015, officials decided to create a new super-legislature to overturn it.
The opposition reluctantly agreed to run in November after two unconditional opposition members joined the five-member electoral authority.
But Guaidó, the former congressional leader who is recognized by the United States, Britain and other countries as the legitimate president of Venezuela, did not encourage people to vote in November. While his party ran for office, it did not vote.
After the victory in Barinas, he told reporters that this result was a great lesson in organization and mobilization, but said that the opposition has yet to demand negotiations on fairer electoral conditions and an end to the political conflict.
“This is a simple thing: to end the political persecution, to release the political prisoners, to achieve a timetable of free and fair elections, to achieve the economic revival of the country,” he said.
Former MP María Corina Machado took a more forceful stance against participation, saying those who did were “washing their faces” of Maduro’s government.
“This is not a choice, but a simulation that assigns spaces without real power,” he tweeted on election day. “This struggle requires delegitimizing and destabilizing tyranny.”
Venezuela’s opposition has been divided over boycotts since at least 2005, when major parties withdrew from congressional elections, citing problems with the voting system and a biased electoral council.
The result was widely seen as a disaster for the opposition: an almost total victory for Chávez that gave him carte blanche to pass legislation.
International observers determined that the vote was basically transparent. But electoral conditions have become increasingly hostile since then: independent and opposition media have been shut down, opposition parties have taken over and their leaders have been imprisoned or forced into exile.
“The problem is that voter turnout is the most divisive issue in the opposition,” said David Smilde, a senior researcher at the Washington Office for Latin America and a professor at Tulane University.
“They decided to go to the 2021 regional elections, but with minimal effort to unify candidacies and in fact seek to discourage voting,” he said.
The turnout on November 21 was only 42%. Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela won more than 200 of the 322 municipalities and most of the governor’s offices, although its total votes, 3.7 million, exceeded the 3.9 million of its opponents.
Part of the bad opposition was the result of his inability to line up behind a single candidate, splitting support. This was the case in the state of Miranda, where incumbent Governor Hector Rodriguez was re-elected after a bitter dispute between two opposition candidates.
Smilde said opposition must find a way to “resolve conflict and forge coherent strategy”
“It’s unrealistic to think that a diverse coalition will reach a consensus on ideology,” he said. “But if they can agree on mechanisms to form an effective coalition, they will succeed, as Barinas has just shown.”
Although Guaidó and others say that democracy will only return to Venezuela through a negotiated process with the government, these efforts have repeatedly failed, most recently in October, when the government stopped talks after a close ally of Maduro was extradited to the United States for money laundering. charges.
During the dialogue led by Norwegian diplomats last year in Mexico City, both sides made concessions, but neither approached their main goals: the end of international sanctions for the government and much more electoral conditions. just for the opposition.
CoPEI Conservative Party leader Roberto Enriquez, the opposition’s delegate to the talks, said Maduro’s government was feeding on the “chaos” of its opponents and warned against “predatory or annihilating behavior among us.”
“The key times are ahead. It’s true that we’ve had a lot of different views and strategies, (but) these differences need to be left behind,” he said.
The next presidential election is scheduled for 2024, but some are pushing for an effort to oust Maduro soon.
Venezuela’s constitution allows for a referendum to remove a president who has served at least half of his term. A number of groups filed petitions this month to begin the process and the electoral authorities allowed them to move forward, although Guaidó and others expressed skepticism about their intentions.
In Barinas, the opposition joined behind a candidate and won people like Maria Bolivar, who formally works in a public hospital but has long since stopped working because her $ 7 monthly salary was not enough to feed her. -se.
Bolivar, 62, said the rest of the country should take note of what happened:
“Let this serve as an example for the rest of the country to fight.”