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.