Nueva Esparta: Opposition Vs. Opposition

Boycotted primaries, an old AD leader playing for chavismo, a protector hiding his red identity... Margarita has a new political landscape with old faces

Nueva Esparta

—Good afternoon, how are you? Following president Maduro’s instructions, we’re knocking on every door asking: are you going to vote on November 21st? 

Hola, yes. 

—Who else votes in your home? Your brother, right?


—How’s your roof? 

—In very bad shape. Do you want to come in and see?

—Not now, we just wanted to know. 

I wasn’t surprised by this sudden visit of my town’s CLAP coordinators, although it’s the first time they do it before an election. The campaign of the chavista candidate for governor of Nueva Esparta state has been very insistent; every morning, at 8:00 a.m., a car with a speaker bombs us with three jingles.

There are no new players in the competition to rule the insular state.

Governor Alfredo Díaz, who comes from Acción Democrática (AD), seeks reelection after being one of the only four opposition candidates who won the previous regional elections, amid a massive PSUV triumph. The 52-year-old was a councilman for Mariño municipality, the city of Porlamar, from 1995 to 2008, when he won the mayorship. He was re-elected to the 2013-2017 term, and from there he went to win the governorship against chavista general Carlos Mata Figueroa, who was trying to repeat as governor. 

Díaz had to rule under the shadow of Dante Rivas, appointed as the protector of Nueva Esparta in 2018, and therefore in control of most sources of funding—which are in the hands of the central government. Rivas is also the president of Corpo Nueva Esparta, an institution improvised to give the protector the power of managing scarce essential goods: fuel supply, CLAP bags, and water rationing, among others.

Dante Rivas is clearly part of the chavista elite. Born in Margarita in 1975—an important detail in an island that tends to distrust rulers from the mainland—he’s the minister for agriculture and fishing, after he was minister of commerce, minister of environment, and the director of SAIME, the agency in charge of citizen identification. The protector and minister was also elected as a lawmaker for the National Assembly in the most recent legislative elections.

However, the protector has more than one contender in the race for the governorship, besides the sitting governor. After years promoting his image through his two radio stations, Morel Rodríguez aspires to rule Nueva Esparta for the seventh time, even though he’s over 80 years old. 

Rodríguez has such a long history in Nueva Esparta politics that his first term happened when the governors were still appointed by the president, not elected by citizens. Then, he became the first governor of decentralization and managed to win four more times. Six in total, so far. 

A journalist friend, who I’ll be referring to as Luis because he prefers to keep his real name private, says that the existence of two opposition candidates clears the path for Dante Rivas, “but this doesn’t mean Dante is winning.” 

The Visir and the Scorpion

Luis says chavismo has shuffled several names to control Nueva Esparta. “A long time before PSUV organized its primaries in 2021, there were rumors about bringing an outsider, someone imposed from another region. For a while, we heard it’d be Jorge García Carneiro, because he has margariteña blood and relatives in La Asunción, but when he died they started to promote Diosdado Cabello’s wife, Marlene Contreras de Cabello, before that option also lost steam.”

Finally, Dante Rivas was declared the winner of the PSUV primaries over Marisel Velásquez, the current mayor of the Díaz municipality, a strong figure of local chavismo. The delay to announce who won the primaries brought suspicions, and some people said that Velásquez had won and Rivas was imposed, as we suspected was happening in other parts of Venezuela. 

Rivas may actually be a candidate appointed from Caracas and not chosen by the grassroots in Margarita, but that’s not the only strategy to take over the state. 

Within the opposition, Luis explains, there’s no chance of understanding between Alfredo Díaz and Morel Rodríguez. “People say both Alfredo and Morel want the other to lose, rather than win. Sometimes it seems that’s true.” Morel Rodríguez is running without the still valuable MUD hand symbol but supported by the cards of AD, COPEI, Voluntad Popular and Primero Justicia that were confiscated by the Maduro regime and assigned to loyal politicians. He’s also backed by Fuerza Vecinal, a party opposing MUD in many cities. 

So this old guard politician is running on the side of what’s known today as alacranes or scorpions: those involved in the Maduro regime’s manufacturing of a fake opposition. 

Nostalgia Vs. Reality

“Morel is offering things that belong to the foregone era of fat cows, when we all know the state’s duty-free system collapsed and they must now come up with something new. They say they’re going to give groceries for free, and that the big public works will be back…” For Luis, Morel is strong because everyone remembers him as a successful ruler, “but he has little organizational capacities in the mayorship races, excepting Maneiro and Mariño municipalities, where he has solid candidates. He depends on people who remember the good old times spontaneously voting for Morel.” 

Alfredo Díaz didn’t have the fortune of ruling over a bonanza: he had to be governor during an economic collapse, a complex humanitarian emergency, the progressive decline of domestic and foreign tourism, and on top of all that, a pandemic, which stopped everything but the building of big supermarkets and luxury bodegones.

Díaz had to focus on social assistance, blocked from doing more because of the sequestering of constitutional resources by the chavista central government and its protector. The governor sent mobile clinics to several communities, providing basic health care services with Fundanane (the former Fundación del Niño) and medicine, as he did in his role as Porlamar mayor with Fundación Santiago Mariño, then directed by his wife Leynnys Malavé, who’s aspiring for the mayorship today. 

“Three months ago, I saw Morel as the winner,” Luis says. “You could notice the enthusiasm. But it declined after people realized Morel isn’t the same and he gets tired quickly during the rallies. So you see Alfredo recovering because a lot of voters will vote for the MUD’s symbol, so they don’t have to browse and jump all over the ballot when they’re in front of the machine, they’ll vote for the whole list,” says Luis. That doesn’t work for Verónica (not her real name), a social activist devoted to politics. I ask her how she sees the election and you can see she’s disappointed: “I don’t see it. I want to vote for Alfredo and for Morel’s candidate for the mayorship, but I don’t know how to cross my vote.” She doesn’t know how to do it with the current list. And voters younger than her just don’t know who Morel Rodríguez is. 

Of course, Morel knows it, and he takes to his grandson Morel David Rodríguez to his rallies since he’s heading to be reelected as the mayor of the prosper Maneiro municipality, home to important malls such as Sambil, Costa Azul and La Vela; the fancy Playa El Ángel; and the beautiful foodie town of Pampatar. Morel the Old tries to associate his past glory to this Morel the Young who rules the only area in Margarita where you can see significant prosperity and is famous all over the island even if the business community in his municipality is fed up with the bills of waste management and excruciating taxes.

Will someone fall under the spell of that tempting invocation of better times? Alfonso Castillo, for instance, is sure about it: “You know that Margarita is adeca and people here remember Morel very well. When he was giving out bags of food, he did that with everyone, adecos or not, everyone got their ticket and the next day they saw the trucks handing out groceries. Morel is going to win.”

Deserted Primaries 

A divided opposition (if we can really say that Morel Rodríguez is an opposition politician) wasn’t part of the plan. Mónica Jiménez, an experienced radio and local TV journalist, was part of the commission in charge of organizing the primaries for choosing the opposition candidates for governor and mayors. Only one candidate for governor was inscribed: Alfredo Díaz. Morel refused to compete and insisted on running alone. Something similar happened with the primaries in six out of eleven municipalities: only one candidate stepped in. In Macanao, no one wanted to participate.

“We thought that was the civic way to keep the political space we had, going with unitary candidates, no matter who ran,” Jiménez says. “20 percent of opposition voters left the state. Another 20 percent are entrenched in refusing to vote at all. Another 20 percent are disgusted by division or by always having to choose between the same guys. With 40 percent of opposition turnout, we aren’t winning: chavismo can count on 20 percent of hard support, and the remaining 20 percent will split between all the different candidates. This is what we’re seeing nationwide: individual ambitions of candidates prevail over the evident need to preserve or widen the political space we had won.”

Journalist and lawyer Beverly Bracho actually thinks the election results are already known, although they’re not official yet: “Dante already has the majority of votes.” As a resident of Maneiro, she thinks Morel David has done well, and that he has the economic surge of the area in his favor. “However, I wouldn’t vote for Morel (the Old) or for Dante, and I think Alfredo Díaz already negotiated to support Dante in exchange for the Mariño mayorship for his wife.”

In La Asunción, the state’s capital, Alí Romero is running for reelection for the Tupamaro party, against Manuel Antonio Narváez, who won in the MUD primaries and did a good job in two terms as mayor from 1996 to 2004. In that race, Morel ended up supporting an unknown evangelical pastor, most likely to pay pastor Javier Bertucci back, for his support in the race for governor. 

In decaying Porlamar, Luis says things don’t look good for the opposition. Morel supports José Antonio González, who has more money and propaganda than the chavista candidate, Hanthony Coello, who recently replaced the mayor of the island’s biggest city when he was forced to resign in October, apparently for administrative irregularities (meaning, a fall from grace). 

The New Landscape

Luis assures he’s voting for an opposition candidate for mayor, but “chavismo has forced us to vote for anyone who isn’t chavista, even when there are opposition contenders who don’t deserve to win.” 

Mónica Jiménez isn’t happy about seeing Morel David supported by the new party Fuerza Vecinal. “However, he’s running with a clear advantage. Nobody knows the girl running for PSUV. And the guy running under the MUD card, Nano Ávila, represents the past; he lacks the youthful energy of Morel David.” In Porlamar, she thinks the winner will simply be the one more capable of mobilizing voters on November 21st. “PSUV can buy the support of the poor. And I don’t think that Leynnys and Alfredo can afford to compete with that this time.”

Meanwhile, you won’t see red in the propaganda for Dante Rivas and the other chavista candidates. The word “revolution” is absent from this campaign. The ads are quite clean, with a lot of white and clear blue. Not even Chávez is there; only his pair of eyes appear in the voting list, as a last visual aid for the loyals. Maduro isn’t seen either. And the opposition candidates dedicate their time to fighting each other instead of attacking their chavista contender.

Esteban García, almost 80 years old, walks down 31 de Julio Avenue, the one that leads to Playa El Agua, close to a parked car when a speaker resounds with “Vamos con David, ese es nuestro caballo.

Esteban stops me to say: “After politicians win, they don’t recognize you, they don’t even give you a ride if they see you walking by the road.” He’s talking about an opposition councilman he voted for, years ago. But he has words for chavistas, too. “How many years has David been a councilman, and what has he done? Nothing.” 

Venezuela has changed in every aspect except one: politicians.

Read the whole Electoral Fiesta series here