Governors nobody ever elected

It's not just that state elections are eons late, is that six states are now run by people no one ever elected. We take you on a guided tour.

What does it take to become a governor in Venezuela? Well, if you go by the librito azul you have to be popularly elected in your state…but chavismo wouldn’t stand on that kind of formality, would they? Of course not.

Set aside for a moment that all 23 state governors have outlived their constitutional terms and should’ve been re-elected last year, and you’re still faced with an inconvenient truth: Six out of 23 state governors in Venezuela right now were elected by no one…

How does that work? Well, it’s complicated. The laws, in the scenario that a governor resigns, are pretty confusing. That context gives chavismo the opportunity to have an “easy way” to name new chavistas in the governorates.

What exactly is going on here? Well, it’s a big, complicated country. Three factors seem to be at play:

Scraping the Bottom of the Human Resource Barrel

Nicolás Maduro inherited a state top-heavy with Chávez-loyalists. Chávez-loyalists, not Maduro-loyalists. He’s spent the last four years figuring out which of those guys he can trust, and trying to put them in positions of power. Trouble is, there aren’t all that many of them, and a good number are state governors.

Take for example what happened in Aragua. When Tareck El Aissami was named vice-president, he left Aragua in the hands of Caryl Betho. Betho was Secretaria General de la gobernación for the past four years. The decision was officially made by the Consejo Legislativo.

However, El Aissami said that he was not leaving Aragua, and even though he is the vice president, he is in the same office that he had as governor.

Nothing in the librito azul suggests a vice-president can be a governor at the same time. But…if El Aissami is still “the boss” in Aragua and is still working at his office at the Gobernación, well, it really seems like he’s still doing all the tasks that the governor should do. Hmmmm.

Something similar happened with the vice president before him, Aristóbulo Istúriz. After some chismes de pasillo that Chávez’s son-in-law VP Jorge Arreaza wasn’t on the best terms with Maduro, the president was in need of a vice president, someone who could deal with the Mesa de Diálogo and be minimally credible in the eyes of chavismo and the oposición.

In Anzoátegui, we saw a similar situation. The governor, Aristóbulo Istúriz, was named vice president. When the time came to “choose” a new guy to take over the state, he designated Nelson Moreno, the chairman of the State’s Legislative Assembly. Istúriz again insisted the decision followed the State’s Constitution.

Initially, it was announced that Moreno would be governor until December, when Aristóbulo’s term ended, but so far, there are no elections in sight. Moreno later gained some notoriety as the guy who, in the wake of a tiny scandal about local hospitals putting newborn babies in cardboard boxes, helpfully suggested they decorate the boxes.

In Cojedes there is also a case of a “minister – governor”, maybe for a lack of chavista leaders in the state. In October of last year, Erika Farías, the governor of Cojedes, was named Ministra del poder popular para las comunas y movimientos sociales. When it was time to give up the government of the state she named Margaud Godoy, at the time, Secretaria de Gobierno.

Farías — a powerful, if low-key leader of the pro-Cuban Frente Francisco de Miranda faction in the government — said the decision was based in the article 82 of the Constitution of Cojedes. But she also said she was going to keep a close eye on the decisions made by her successor in the state. So, again — she “resigned”, but only sort of.

Loyalty Rules

In other cases, Maduro is trying (haplessly) to learn from bad experience from the past. Let’s remember what happened in Portuguesa: in January of 2016 the State Assembly had named Reinaldo Castañeda governor to serve Wilmar Castro Soteldo’s last year in office, after Castro Soteldo was appointed Minister for Agriculture. Castañeda had effectively been Castro Soteldo’s number two since 2012, serving as his “Secretario de Gobierno” — so nobody would much mind if nobody had elected him.

Later, Castro Soteldo said that the decision was based on article 96 of the constitution of Portuguesa that says that the Secretario de Gobierno will assume the charge of the governor if he or she resigns during the last year of the period.

But this decision was not made without some controversy: the legislators had a long,
seven-hour meeting, where Castro Soteldo had to forcefully argue in favor of Castañeda over the objections of the Foro Político of the Psuv. “This is about saving la patria,  it’s not about a government position”, Castro Soteldo said.

But why take Castro Soteldo out of Portuguesa? His new job in Caracas is a delicate position. Recall that just three years ago the (now infamous) Juan Carlos Loyo was the one that was in charge of that ministry. Rumor has it Loyo stole some “good” money and ran off to the United States. Now Loyo is out of the picture (as well as the other two guys that were named in that position after him) and Castro Soteldo, a soldier that was part of the 4F coup attempt, seems like a faithful guy and a safe option… for now.

On the other hand…who could be more loyal than Chávez’s actual brother, right? Maybe that’s why Maduro named Adán Chávez Culture Minister early in January.  Adán had been governor of Barinas. He’s also a college professor and a physicist, which has nothing to do with any culture activity (but then we’ve even had a veterinarian in that position, Héctor Soto Castellanos from 2005 to 2008 so…)

This looks like a “safe” move for Maduro, keeping the Chávez name in the alto gobierno. He was replaced in Barinas by Zenaida Gallardo, who was the Secretaria General de Gobierno until then, following article 59 of the state constitution.

Damage Control

Finally, one governor seems to have gotten the boot as a matter of straight-up damage control: we’re thinking Luis Acuña, of Sucre State, who abruptly resigned on January 30

after making a press statement so incendiary, he just couldn’t remain. Acuña actually told the press that the whole Northern Coast of his state (and mind you, Sucre is like 90% Northern Coast) is under the control of Drug Trafficking mafias because there’s no effective government control there. Acuña then managed to blame the opposition —in the form of its mayors— anyway.

Here, Acuña broke one of the cardinal rules of chavista communications: thou shalt not admit our drugs links, even if everyone already sort of knows about them. Rumors that Acuña  was on his way out started in mid January, but he kept denying the story and named Edwin Rojas, a PSUV member of the National Assembly as the Secretario General de Gobierno. Five days later Acuña stepped down.

Rumor has it he will be named consul to Toronto, a diplomatic Golden Parachute that gets him out of everyone’s hair. The same rumors said that the decision was an effort from chavismo to “save” the followers of the revolution in that state from the terrible job Acuña was doing.

Some have speculated that the raft of outgoing governors (remember, Vielma Mora is stepping aside, too) is down to chavista politicians wanting to avoid an embarrassing defeat in elections. But that isn’t convincing, because chavismo has no interest in preparing for regional elections. They’ve been loudly saying that the Carnet de la Patria is more important that the constitutional right of every citizen to choose the governor of each state.

Gaby J. Miller

Gaby is a Caraqueña steeped in 90's pop culture who likes to talk and write politics.