Freddy Bernal Drops the Red to Win Táchira

What had been an opposition state for many years, is changing. A divided opposition complicated the scenario enough to bring the protector closer to victory


Freddy Bernal, the protector of Táchira, has been exercising the functions of a de facto governor for months now, and had the chance to begin his campaign for the actual role early. We first saw that they were fixing streets and painting walls. Then the slogan “Let’s love Táchira” started to appear everywhere and Bernal’s entire narrative clung to this phrase, which gave its name to what he has presented as “an independent electoral platform.”

In the current campaign, the candidate of chavismo—a historical leader of the so-called Bolivarian revolution, since the coup attempts of 1992—doesn’t wear red or the emblematic symbols of the ruling party. His ads don’t even mention PSUV.

In his campaign, the former police officer from Táchira goes out inaugurating infrastructure, always underlining that thanks to him the border bridges with Colombia were reopened—although the bridges were blocked with containers, to prevent the passage of the trucks with humanitarian aid after the concert in Cúcuta, and passage on foot was allowed. According to Bernal, he’s responsible for the recent reactivation of commercial flights and for the bus lines that connect Táchira with the rest of the country returning to the terminals.

As is often the case with so-called protectors, Bernal insists on spreading the message that only he has the resources and access to the central government to make things happen. But with Bernal, we’re seeing previously unseen support for a chavista candidate in this state. Edgar Medina, the president of the Táchira Cattle Farmers Association (ASOGATA), an organization historically opposed to the government, and another staunch critic of chavismo, Alberto Maldonado, president of the Táchira Workers Federation (FETRATÁCHIRA), declared their support for the “Let’s love Táchira” platform, which they promote as the only recovery option for the entity. The same is happening with other important organizations in the region.

Bernal’s platform is also campaigning for the PSUV candidate for mayor of the state capital, Silfredo Zambrano, who could become the first chavista mayor of San Cristóbal—since there are four opposition candidates competing for that position.

Turning Fortunes

According to the National Electoral Center (CNE), Táchira was the state with the lowest participation in the parliamentary elections last December. Out of an electoral population of 855,581 people, only 164,445 voted. The abstention rate was 80.49%, despite efforts by governor Laidy Gómez, of Acción Democrática (AD). PSUV won three of the deputies for the listed vote, leaving one for AD.

For these regional elections, the Táchira electoral universe amounts to 892,940 voters. However, reality has made voters indifferent to politics. The deep economic and social crisis has caused citizens of Táchira to be too busy finding solutions for the hardships of everyday life. 

The divisions, the polarization, and the confrontational political discourse have also demotivated citizens. Months ago, governor Laidy Gómez announced that she would participate in primaries for the Frente Amplio. At the same time, supported by the card of the Democratic Unity Table (MUD), the former mayor of Michelena, Fernando Andrade, was nominated. There were no primaries or consensus between these two aspiring opponents to the government of Táchira, and both are still in the race.

At this point, the story gives a sense of déjà vu. The victory of opposition governor Cesar Pérez Vivas in the 2008 electoral contest happened thanks to the division of chavismo, after the PSUV candidate, Leonardo Salcedo, lost votes to another chavista candidate who ran on her own. The opposition fears this is the scenario they will be facing.

How Will Gochos Vote?

In this context, chavismo’s main adversary isn’t a name but a card: Acción Democrática. It’s the AD voters, still strong in Táchira, who listen to the governor and her allies when they describe their competitors in the opposition as “alacranes.” Andrade has focused his narrative on criticizing Freddy Bernal and the Maduro government.

Despite the enthusiasm of each political party, the voters of Táchira will be the ones who decide the political destiny of the state. They are the ones who continue to endure the deterioration of public services, and a shortage of medicines and supplies in hospitals so serious that they must continually go to Colombia to seek chemotherapy treatment there, among other things.

Miguel Castellanos’s two daughters are abroad. He works in an office and his main concern is getting the medicine for his wife’s treatment, here or in Colombia. He was in Peru for a while and returned. He says that he’s going to vote because he “can’t leave his city in the hands of chavismo again.” He dreams of a change in the national government that allows Venezuela to recover and emerge from the economic crisis.

Vanessa Contreras, on the other hand, is reluctant to participate in the electoral process: “I’ve voted since I was 18 years old, I have been the main witness, substitute, witness coordinator, I protested with my head held high and also wearing a hood. I had to pack my life in a suitcase and leave my home for three months. I have seen mothers bury their children or see them leave by plane without a return ticket. There have been no positive changes. The opposition leadership looks very comfortable and it seems that’s good business. So no, thank you, I won’t vote until there are real conditions for my will to be respected.” 

For several years now, this border region has been experiencing problems that have later spread to the rest of the country: fuel rationing, the disappearance of cash, the need for foreign currency, human trafficking, hours and days without electricity… In Táchira, there have been violent protests that haven’t had an echo in Venezuela. The emotional imprint of all this will be reflected in the contest between Laidy Gómez and Freddy Bernal.

Regional pride, the famous Tachirense tenacity, may end up driving voters to the polls. A saying of Monsignor Carlos Sánchez Espejo became a daily proverb: “Táchira does what Táchira wants.” The questions now are: What does Táchira want? Who does Táchira prefer to rule it?

Read the whole Electoral Fiesta series here