What the Set-Up Pieces Can't Convey

For all the sharp pre-electoral analysis in the press these last few days – there are some things no set-up piece can convey. The interminable lines in every pharmacy, supermarket and...

For all the sharp pre-electoral analysis in the press these last few days – there are some things no set-up piece can convey.

The interminable lines in every pharmacy, supermarket and abasto in every corner of Caracas today, with people stocking up on everything from diablitos to toilet paper, porsiacaso.

The hour-long trek through seven kiosks I had to undertake in Las Mercedes today just to get myself a cell-phone prepaid card, with seller after seller saying “nomiamor, people have been buying those up in sets of five and six…nobody wants to be without one if something happens.”

The heady cocktail of trepidation, barely concealed excitement and fear…the mass expectation that something big is bound to happen tomorrow, but we just can’t tell if it’s good or bad.

On Thursday a Sucre Municipality worker (and Caracas Chronicles reader) took me out to gauge the mood in Caucagüita, a tough slum on the outer fringes of Petare on the road down to Guarenas. “We always lose out here,” my friend said, “but we’re trying to keep it like 60-40, rather than 75-25 [in favor of Chávez].”

In the hypercompressed geography of the barrio, Capriles and Chávez supporters live cheek-by-jowl, with homes festooned with Chavez paraphernalia sometimes directly next door to shanties decked out in Capriles’s posters.  Everybody in the barrio knows everybody else’s business, and there was a good deal of trash talkin’ between the two sides from their stoops, just inches away. It was good natured, but you can sense the menace just beneath the surface. Things in the barrio are calm, until they’re not.

Chávez supporters are mobilized out there, as are the Capriles people, but the gap in resources is immense. On election day, chavistas set out little tents outside voting centers, blaring pro-government music and handing out goodies – perhaps a bottle of revolutionary gatorade, or something stronger. The law’s carefully set out norms about how close those toldos can be to voting places are roundly flouted. For opposition people, it’s deeply intimidating to run that gamut to vote against Chávez. These are your neighbors, after all. They know where you live.

The Capriles Camp is working hard to match the chavista effort with toldos of their own. But even in a place like this, where the opposition mayor should technically even the playing field to some extent, they’re badly outmanned and outspent.

My friend has more voting centers to oversee than sound-systems to hand out, and the campaign is out of cash. He has to make tough decisions on the spot about where the Capriles sound-systems will go – knowing the centers that don’t get them are centers where his own people will be much less likely to turn out. I see various local centro coordinators plead with him to get the soundsystem. “Si no, nos van a apabuyar acá.”

And I think if that’s Caucagüita, what it must be like out in Libertador, where the opposition doesn’t run the mayor’s office.

Later on in the week I end up at a small party at an apartment in La Florida, drinking rum with half a dozen Venezuelan and foreign chavista intellectuals. The rum does wonders to dispel the awkwardness, but it’s obvious to everyone that neither side has a lot of experience arguing face to face with a representative of the other. We work hard to keep it civil, and at times it’s really kind of wonderful: we manage flashes of the kind of reasoned, responsible debate that’s so absent from so much of our public sphere.

They’re confused that I’m civil and don’t seem to have horns, but still they tell me straight out: the problem is that you are all fascists. They go through the massacres of the 60s and 70s, the paro, the coup, hitting the VTV talking points one after another. “Tu puedes ser un carajo muy de pinga, but how can we possibly trust Capriles not to massacre the pueblo after everything that’s happened?”

I try to take them through the reasoning in my NYTimes op-ed. “But listen, everybody can see that we have a successful model of social democracy right next door, a model that’s taken millions out of poverty in just a few years. Capriles is surrounded by people who’ve been advocating that model for 20 years, Villasmil, Santos, José Guerra…why would he take the country of a governability cliff by veering to the right now?!”

They’re unimpressed, “don’t you see that he has to respond to his class interests? Even assuming you’re right and Capriles is a de pinga guy, don’t you see there are structural factors that force him to serve the interests of the exploiter class?”

The impasse is always there. These guys never got the message about the opposition’s evolution over the last 6 years. They’re still running against the Coordinadora Democrática. And who can blame them? The State Media they watch has studiously buried the story of the opposition’s transformation. They just roll their eyes when I try to tell them things are different. “Este pobre güevón sí que está engañao…” you can see them thinking.

They really are convinced Henrique Capriles is a pinochetista in disguise. Deep down, really. They’re certain that crying fraud even though they lost fair and square is, as one of them put it, “not their Plan B, but their Plan A.”

I give them credit for really working to speak civilly to me, and after a while we’re talking about non-political stuff and drinking together and laughing and just hanging out. For a brief moment, I can just about forget that they think I’m a fascist aspiring mass murderer. Almost.

In these further reaches of ideological chavismo, it’s taken as self-evident that Chávez will win in a landslide tomorrow. These people are in no way psychologically prepared to accept another result. I’m half convinced they’ll end up crying fraud if Capriles wins and Tibisay announces it. They remind me of the opposition’s mindset ahead of the Recall Referendum in August 2004. That’s how far gone they are.

The mood on the other side isn’t quite triumphalism. For the most part, opposition supporters assume it will be close. They’re struggling emotionally to allow themselves to hope again. Now and then a superescuálido will say he expects a Capriles landslide. But they’re mostly trying to convince themselves. For the most part, opposition nation thinks it’ll win by a small margin and fears Chávez will try a powergrab. And so they stock up on groceries and candles and prepaid cell phone cards.

Nobody I’ve talked to since I got here discounts the possibility of violence. From the proverbial taxi drivers and friends’ cleaning lady to the barrio moms to the foreign journalists and academics to the random kids you meet at parties, both chavista and opposition. Nobody.

The sense of sitting on a powderkeg is real, palpable, omnipresent. The hope that we may just be able to defuse it before it blows is also there.

Amanecerá y veremos.