Crossposted on the FT’s beyondbrics blog

Legislative Elections in Venezuela this Sunday herald the start of a new political era in the country. The opposition coalition won a stunning 112 out of 167 seats in the single-chamber National Assembly: an earthquake that upends the political landscape in the country that hosts the world’s biggest oil reserves.

Sunday’s earthquake was built on an unprecedented grassroots mobilization effort by thousands of opposition volunteers whose stories have barely begun to be told. They hit the streets in numbers to quash any attempt at vote rigging and to keep the vote peaceful.

Organized as EPAs (“Equipos Populares de Apoyo” – People’s Support Teams), they were run by regular, everyday people working to keep their own communities safe.

People like Yraseth Rivas, 35, from the eastern city of Cumaná. Leading a team of ten opposition activists from her neighborhood and perhaps another 40 regular neighbours, she showed up at the Rebeca Mejía polling place at 6 p.m. to make sure it was closed on time. Keeping polling stations open long past the legal limit for voting is one well known chavista trick – the extra time allows the government to track down public employees who have not yet voted and frog-march them into the polling both under pressure. At worst, polling places kept open long into the night have been the site of shameless ballot stuffing.

Yraseth wasn’t about to let them get away with it. Together with her neighbours, she faced down the army and state police officers who were insisting the polls stayed open. Yraseth knew the law, and she knew the people “waiting in line” to vote had already voted – she could tell by the indelible ink on their hands. For her efforts, she was arbitrarily arrested and detained for more than four hours. But her fellow volunteers kept the pressure up, and soon the polling place was closed. For the first time ever, the opposition won at that polling station, by a whopping 700 votes. In previous elections, they typically lost by 100.

Accounts of Sunday’s election have largely overlooked the contribution of people like Yraseth. They’ve focused instead on the country’s appalling economic crisis, chronic goods shortages, and general climate of lawlessness and corruption. Focusing solely on those issues obscures the story of how one of the most systematically maligned, scorned and demonized pro-democracy movements in the world managed to mobilize thousands of volunteers to keep the election from being stolen, or worse, turned into a bloodbath.

Over a long series of elections stretching back 17 years, Venezuela’s socialist government has perfected a long roster of election day cheats, cons and dirty tricks. Wantonly abusing state resources, pro-government campaigns have never been shy about leveraging their control of voters’ personal data to track down those who haven’t voted. That’s illegal, but in a country where the government ruthlessly controls the courts, that doesn’t really help.

The key to stealing an election in Venezuela has always been intimidating opposition witnesses into submission. One or two opposition witnesses at a voting station can’t really do much if a gang of 25 heavily armed chavista thugs turn up with a bus full of people being forced to vote for the government.

But this time, the opposition was ready. After identifying the 2,150 polling places most exposed to government intimidation tactics, the opposition MUD coalition put together teams of community activists nationwide ready to respond to any violent or intimidatory chavista tactic. Relying on a series of call centers and a custom made software platform to track reports of abuse and quickly dispatch teams of local activists to trouble spots, the opposition managed to neutralize the government’s abuse of power nationwide. Empowered community members nationwide looked the military-based regime in the eye. And the regime blinked.

What Venezuela saw on Sunday wasn’t just an election, it was an unprecedented act of nationwide organised civil resistence against one of the most repressive regimes in the Americas.

Think about this the next time you see the Venezuelan opposition dismissed as little more than an oligarchic cabal, a handful of rich guys in mansions trying to undo the revolution of the poor.

The gap between Venezuela’s new majority and this grotesque caricature of an opposition we’ve been sold has never been more stark than in these elections.

The opposition we’ve been sold would not have been able to compete and win in every corner of Venezuela, including the kinds of deeply poor, rural districts that had always supported Chávez in numbers.

The opposition we’ve been sold would not have elected Latin America’s first transgender candidate, the remarkable legal scholar and LGBT rights activist Tamara Adrian – whose name a supposedly ‘progressive’ left-wing government still refuses to change from its original incarnation, “Tomás.”

The opposition we’ve been sold could never have won all three of the National Assembly members set aside to represent indigenous Venezuelans.

And the opposition we’ve been sold could never have persuaded Yraseth and her neighbors to volunteer to face down our repressive regime’s wrath.

The opposition we’ve been sold is, in other words, a propaganda fraud: a willing misrepresentation of a movement that now embodies the democratic aspiration of the vast bulk of Venezuela’s people.

Thanks to the new majority’s remarkable mobilization on Sunday, this election produced peace, not chaos. Rather than a deep partisan shift, this election opened the door for an orderly return to genuine constitutional democracy.

Still, one might wonder, would the opposition have won the election even without Sunday’s unprecedented volunteer mobilization?

Probably. Discontent with the government is just too great.

But would it have won by the crushing, two-thirds margin it won by?

That’s doubtful. Chavista dirty tricks like the one Yraseth helped difuse were concentrated in a districts identified as likely to flip given a last minute government push.

That matters because it’s been the decisive scale of the landslide that’s kept Venezuela peaceful since the vote. A country that had been widely seen as a prime candidate for violence and civil disorder following a closely fought election has been left quiet: a stunned silence where the pro-government shock groups and armed militias that have been terrorizing opposition activists for years simply didn’t dare to come out.

Venezuela owes its civil peace, in no small part, to the army of community activists that the opposition deployed on Sunday night to make sure the people’s democratic will could not be thwarted.

45 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Quico.

    I was wondering if not one will ever mention the thousands of brave people all around the country who help consolidate the big win.

    I also agree we probably still win without them, but know they are empowered to never let this dirty tricks happen again.

    My personal thanks to one brave 18 years old girl who stood again a soldier and demand that her (1 table, 500 voters) center in Urdaneta close on time, we loose te center and the circuit (Lara 2) but this examples times hundreds of times around the contry consolidate our landslide.

  2. Excellent Francisco!!! And they are more stories to tell like the electronic war when the opposition jam the signals so the regime doesn’t communicate real time in the polls.
    It will be very likely and interesting if Caracas Chronicle bring all those positive experiences that make the Venezuelan people great again.

  3. Nice, thank you. maybe someone can help me out with just one question for reference.. when were “polling places kept open long into the night… the site of shameless ballot stuffing”?

      • sorry, maybe i wasn’t clear. i’m asking for evidence of ballot box stuffing… not random articles/forum peices mentioning voting centers open late…

        • Read the complete complaint that the Opposition and Capriles submitted to the CNE two years ago after the presidential election. It contains many documented cases. Also, many people reported that, according to the CNE register, many of their deceased family members voted.

        • My links got caught up in the spam filter. Do a Google Advanced Search on the Caracas Chronicles website using the search term of “dead voters.”

        • Is reductive to ask that question in that way.
          The simple way to verify if this happen or not is by checking the Fingerprint database of each table and the voting notebook record, in a post election event and to audit the databese of Id cards (cédulas) in a evente previous to the election.

          But it is a manner of common sense, if thet can do it they will do it, back in 2013 Maduro won 1 table voting center for 1 million votes, so do the math.

    • I did a Google search for “dead voters” on the CC website.

      The flip side of Quico’s post, which quotes Juan Cristobal Nage;s Foreign Policy article

      One has to wonder: How could chavistas get away with this? The explanation, according to Capriles, lies in the fingerprint scanning machines. According to him, these machines allow anyone to vote, regardless of whether the fingerprint matches the records. He notes that the software governing the machines was not audited prior to the election — because the CNE refused to allow such an audit.
      When you combine questionable high-tech voting machinery with a government that loosely hands out ID cards, buses people to voting centers using government vehicles, intimidates public workers into supporting the government, and uses an electoral registry that includes tens of thousands of dead voters, it’s not too difficult to see how the vote could easily be inflated in favor of the ruling incumbent.
      All Capriles wants is a full audit: of machines, ballot boxes, voting notebooks, fingerprint machines, and that the underlying codes for all the procedures be studied and tallied against one another. In centers where there is a serious mismatch, the votes should be voided and, perhaps, repeated .

      Regarding voting more than once: recall that after the close of the polling centers there were voters lined up to vote who had purple fingers- which indicated they had already voted.

      These are probably the best links from the Google search.
      http://caracaschronicles.com/2013/06/04/how-to-track-a-zombie/

      http://caracaschronicles.com/2013/06/04/the-walking-dead/

  4. This should have been part of the post-election reporting in tv and the NYT, spiegel, el país, la tercera, the clinic of this world.
    Instead they were talking about abstractions like economic downturn. The german public tv station ARD even mentioned an increasing isolation of Chavismo, as if Brasil and China doesn’t count.

    There is a problem with the work of foreign correspondents and the communication strategy of the opposition.

    a) people like to hear about normal bloaks defending democracy
    b) The Equipos Populares de Apoyo more than deserve to be reported about

  5. I have to let out my feminist side from the closet and give a shout out to Yraseth and the girl from Ernesto’s comment #GirlPower #WeGirlsRock #MujeresConPantalones jejeje.

    Seriously, I had not read anything about this voluntary movement EPA before this post. From what you say I understand MUD gave its support and perhaps guided them on how to act when confronting rojos and Plan Republica. Their titanic work should be reported and praised. “Honor al que honor merece”

  6. Reading this it strikes me that the time has come to celebrate Venezuelan heroes after the age of Bolivar.

    The regime has one, only one over all this time since Bolivar, and one that, perhaps a little like Bolivar himself, does not easily stand up to scrutiny in the category of “hero”, but whose ubiquitous picture occupies that space.

    We can debate about Chavez, or Bolivar. You have identified real heroism. You have reminded us that there is no shortage of Venezuelan heroes, people who take real risks and make real sacrifices for their country. That there are many should not excuse us from identifying them and celebrating them, or just saying in some way or another, thank you. And this story also reminds us that yes, at the center of your country’s identify is a strong current of modern, pluralistic, democratic values that inspires selfless and courageous acts, and can lift Venezuela out of the mess that it currently is in.

  7. I wrote a song about this. The lyrics:

    Gloria al bravo pueblo
    que el yugo lanzó,
    la Ley respetando
    la virtud y honor.

    — I —
    ¡Abajo cadenas! (2x)
    Gritaba el señor; (2x)
    y el pobre en su choza
    libertad pidió.
    A este santo nombre
    tembló de pavor
    el vil egoísmo
    que otra vez triunfó.

  8. Guys, this is somewhat off-topic but I have a question. Recently, I read that the MUD intends to follow D’Hondt and hand a couple of the Comisiones Permanentes to the PSUV. As far as I’m concerned, a unanimous vote from the presidents of these comisiones is necessary for the AN to enact a law in case the President vetoes it (he will). Is this the case? If so, isn’t it terribly naîve to let the PSUV have even a single comisión?

  9. Imagine if this implemented during HCR vs Maduro, do we win? Hindsight aside it’s nice to see we learn from our mistakes! Thanks to all the volunteers who put their skin in the game!

    • It was not a matter of if but how many. Our witnesses just reached the critical mass. People in or from the major urban centres should realise now there were a lot of unknown heroes defending our votes not only in rural but in largely ignored urban provincial Venezuela, where most Venezuelans live, in cities like Cumaná, Guacara, Quíbor, Punto Fijo, Calabozo and so on. Now those heroes were just joined by enough people as to make cheating too hard

  10. This is how democracy triumphs. I am very pleased to learn that MUD had such a plan, and that it was carried through effectively. How much did Chuo Torrealba have to do with the operation? And other MUD leaders? Whoever was head of EPA deserves a seat at the head table.

    • The EPA plan was one part of a wider mobilization strategy. It was run out by Freddy Guevara and VP (though of course the on-the-ground volunteers came from all parties.)

  11. In a traditionally Chavista neighbourhood in El Tigrito, the MUD booth saw incredible numbers of people come forward to thank them publicly for showing bravery and courage by just being there — despite red-shirted goons on motorbikes hurling abuse and worse. The final results, in a poll that was almost always 70-30 Chavista went 50-50 this time. Real and positive change is possible…and now it is likely.

  12. And mention of El Tigrito strikes close to home. In 1982 I got married in El Tigre, by the Prefecto, in the old family house of my wife (bone in Anaco), in the disenfranchised part of the city called “Dog Town.” Those are very hardy folk down there and if their capacity was ever collared and directed toward a true nationalism, the future looks golden indeed.

  13. I spent Sunday afternoon volunteering to provide rides to people in order to vote (often elderly or pregnant). The Opposition headquarters was staffed largely by young people. I was very impressed by them. They were organized, efficient, and calm, but mainly they were very focused. There was no messing around. Those who tend to write off Venezuelans as frivolous and immature should see what I saw on 6D.

  14. Two important considerations : this army of people have now the expertise gained from this electoral experience to do it again , they’re now trained veterans , which is a good thing to have , this isnt going to be our last election , Second its been established that one thing binding people to a cause is making them actively do something for it , (In California they asked people if they would mind allowing a small notice to be put in their lawns for some innocent cause or other , then they were asked to allow something additional but also modest , in time those people became militantly engaged in the advancement of certain public causes related to the original one. People become easier to mobilize if they do anything active in its favour.

    Last but not least they deserve our unreserved praise for their courageous and effective behaviour !!

  15. Dont forget the 60 people that decided the Circuito in Aragua that finally gave the diputado no. 112. That probably deserves it own article

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