Zulia Wants Change But Distrusts Voting

With the division in the race for Maracaibo and the Chavista ability to cover the discontent with food, the return of the opposition is not assured


The question comes up and the answer is no. Everyone says no.

We’re a group of about 12 people sharing a table in a popular restaurant in Maracaibo, and none of us are interested in voting in the November 21st elections, in which governors, mayors, and councilpersons will be elected. The conversation is hardly relevant for a laugh, but someone remembers the unusual and mediocre jingles of some of the candidates, inspired by songs by artists like Queen or Farruko.

One of the attendees looks for the videos on his Twitter account to share with the others: some laugh, others can’t believe it, there are those who show disinterest and those who feel sorry for the candidates.

It’s a cringe festival that can’t even be matched by Chigüire Bipolar, the most important political humor portal in Venezuela. It’s hard to top Manuel Rosales’ campaign video inspired by J Balvin’s “In Da Guetto”:

Rosales, a former Zulia governor, is running again under the Democratic Unity Table (MUD) umbrella.

After watching the videos, we change the subject and no one talks about it again. At that time, there were just over two weeks before the elections and there was no interest in debating the races for future Zulia governor or for the mayorship of Maracaibo—one of Venezuela’s most important cities.

The scene is perhaps a good example of how the national government has worn down the electoral spirit of thousands of Venezuelans over the years, with multiple arbitrary practices that have been denounced by international organizations: disabling or forcing its adversaries into exile, attacking or arresting opposition candidates previously elected for some public office and, of course, announcing murky and unreliable electoral results.

The detail is that fatigue is also fueled by the actions of an opposition that looks lost and unable to face the Chavista behemoth.

“I stopped believing in democracy in our context a long time ago. Elections do not mean democracy and there are no conditions,” says Adolfhu Pestana, radio host, and producer. “All the options to vote are more of the same: a string of populists who want to buy people with gifts, and not with production and productivity. And perhaps it is what most of the people want, because not for nothing we’ve been mired in this system of government for so long .”

Along the same lines, Heberto Alvarado, director of Hormiga TV and Mandoka Estudio, argues that the conditions for voting in a democratic system are based on respect for the autonomy of powers, freedom of thought, and equal opportunity, which are elements that “don’t exist in the country. There is no room for a political thought other than socialism. On the other hand, I have no confidence in the candidates or in the system,” adds Alvarado.

But there are still people who believe in the electoral route. Carol Camacho, a university professor, and researcher argues that voting is her “duty as a citizen” and that the only process she believes in to achieve political change is through elections. “I don’t believe in coups, I don’t believe in violent protests, I don’t believe in mass murder,” she says. “So the only way to be able to give my option of who I want in power is through the power of the vote, through suffrage, which is a political and civil conquest that cost our grandparents a lot. So that’s why I validate, always through the vote, my opinion .”

Regarding the electoral conditions, Camacho assures that there are elements necessary to believe that it’s worth going out to vote. “There will be international observers who will be accompanying the process, an alliance of parties that rescued those that were disqualified, and the social conditions that imply that people want a change.”

Divided for Maracaibo

While in various regions of the country the candidates of the opposition party Fuerza Vecinal declined their candidacy to support the candidate of the MUD, in Maracaibo it didn’t happen.

Last Thursday, November 11th, the last day in which the option to participate could be declined, both Rafael Ramírez, from MUD, and Juan Carlos Fernández, from Fuerza Vecinal, actively promoted themselves on their social media accounts. It seemed a desperate attempt to measure forces and enlist the other’s support at the last minute. But neither one of them conceded.

Fernández, who was already a candidate for mayor of Maracaibo in 2017, made a public statement the following afternoon on a local television channel, where he affirmed that he remained a candidate for Fuerza Vecinal. “I must express that we’re not going to abandon the fight for you, Maracaibo. We’re not going to abandon you at this crucial moment”.

In his speech, he mentioned he supports Rosales as a candidate for governor because he’s “consistent with our ideas.” But Rosales is far from making a statement of sympathy for Fernández, since in recent weeks he has intensively campaigned in Zulia’s capital alongside Ramírez, a deputy for the 2015 National Assembly for the Primero Justicia party.

They were joined by Henrique Capriles, who accompanied them while visiting some communities and had a meeting with the media, where he gave his support to Ramírez and sent a message to Fernández: “I’m ready to have a nice coffee and a conversation with Juan Carlos. I’ll help win the city of Maracaibo and my opinion, with great respect, is that this victory is guaranteed by Rafael Ramírez.”

The winner of this dispute, which is confusing at times, is none other than Willy Casanova, the current Chavista mayor of Maracaibo, who is seeking reelection. There are also rumors that both Casanova and the Maduro-imposed governor, Omar Prieto, are pushing Fernández’s candidacy in the shadows to divide the opposition and ensure the Chavista victory.

Photo courtesy of Willy Casanova

Casanova won in 2017 with 50.38% of the votes, in elections that registered high numbers of abstention. Since then, he has fixed some squares and lit some streets, developing a kind of new normal in the city of Maracaibo, which is deeply affected by a crisis of public services and poverty, but with dozens of food stalls and entertainment venues scattered in the wealthy areas of the city—accessible only to a small group who usually earn salaries in dollars.

Since he came to power, one can see Casanova’s intention to avoid being directly related to Chavismo, even with the colors that he uses for his political identity displayed in the murals or squares that he has remodeled.

Luis Rendueles, political scientist and digital consultant, says that his colorful political brand “Maracaibo Is Reborn” avoids the color red “because it is directly associated with Chavismo and generates rejection. It’s a way of making a difference compared to its predecessors and trying to show the diversity of the city with the colors of the rainbow. It seems like a smart decision to me,” he says.

Regarding Casanova’s campaign in search of re-election, Rendueles thinks that “a politician who aspires to re-election has to show their worth with facts and results of his management, his ability to generate changes and the accomplishments of his government. That’s what Willy Casanova is trying to achieve with his campaign. We’ll see on November 21st if this strategy worked or not .”

On the other hand, Rendueles explains, opposition candidates are involved in contrasting this official campaign by showing the reality, that the city is abandoned and neglected, that public services do not work and that the quality of life of the Marabinos does not improve. “It’s a strategy that mobilizes through rejection and discontent, it’s a campaign based on resistance and contrast.”

Rosales vs. Prieto: Reloaded

In 2015, when the opposition won the majority of deputies to the National Assembly, the only thing that was talked about in the streets of Maracaibo, as in many other regions of the country, was those elections.

It was normal that if you were buying bread, for example, the one who sold it would ask you if you were going to vote, and if the answer was no, or doubt, he would try to convince you. Also, your aunt, your professor at LUZ, or your best friend would talk your ear off going on about the elections; they would even judge you if your answer wasn’t a certain yes. It seemed like everyone was focused on that topic.

Now, not even the participation of Manuel Rosales, a 68-year-old traditional opposition politician from Zulia, has managed to encourage citizens to participate in an electoral environment.

Twice the mayor of Maracaibo, twice the governor of Zulia, Rosales is remembered in the rest of Venezuela for his 2006 presidential candidacy against Hugo Chávez, and for fleeing the country in 2009 when the leader of the self-styled Bolivarian revolution called for his capture, accusing him of corruption.

In 2015, Rosales returned and was immediately detained. More than a year later, he was released, along with six other political prisoners, without further explanation from the authorities. Then, in December 2017, Rosales lost the elections in this state to Omar Prieto, after the elections were repeated because Juan Pablo Guanipa, who had won the governorship in October that year, refused to swear in before the arbitrary National Constituent Assembly, for which his victory was annulled.

Now he will face Prieto again, who has very low popularity, both among ordinary voters and within the PSUV itself. In May 2021 he had was losing in popularity within PSUV against former governor Francisco Arias Cárdenas, who intended to return to the Palacio de Los Cóndores. The result was 43.4% support for Arias Cárdenas compared to only 16.3% for Prieto.

However, Arias Cárdenas was blocked from participating in the PSUV primaries on August 8th, in which Prieto was the winner against Luis Caldera. “I respect the decision,” said the former soldier at the time, although he added that there were “threats and pressure” for him not to participate in these internal elections.

Prieto, who before winning the gubernatorial elections was mayor of the San Francisco municipality, has been characterized by using violent language towards his political opponents, but also by his policies to end crime, which have been denounced by human rights organizations.

In 2018, his then government secretary, Lisandro Cabello, with the approval of the governor, affirmed that he would not respect the human rights of “criminals. “Some ask for respect for human rights, and that is good, human rights are important, but what about the human rights of the victims?” said Cabello, at a press conference where he spoke about the case of some men who were murdered by the regional police after they filmed themselves shooting a woman in front of her daughter: “This is how they end and this is how they will end.”

Some analysts consider that the only thing that gives Rosales a real opportunity, would be the punishment vote of thousands of Zulianos, who’ve had to struggle with Prieto’s lousy management of public services, and the shortages of water, electricity, and domestic gas—which he had promised to resolve.

“These elections will be decided by the electoral structures of the parties. There is the confidence that the spontaneous vote will come out en masse, but unquestionably it will be the power of the campaign structures in place that will decide who will be the winner or the loser on November 21st,” said Jesús Castillo Molleda, political scientist and university professor.

Those electoral structures to which Castillo Molleda refers are the voter mobilization capabilities of the parties, and they favor Chavismo in rural areas such as La Guajira, where poverty is much worse than in other Zulia municipalities. “The PSUV has always won in La Guajira. Why? Because they take advantage of people’s hunger. Whenever there are elections, the bags of food arrive,” says Carmen Bustamante, a Paraguaipoa resident. “At the Omar Prieto rally, which he organized before the start of the campaign, there were lots of people, who came out because they were offered food.”

“But this November 21st there could be a surprise,” she warns. “The situation in the municipality is unbearable in terms of basic services and many people talk about wanting change.”

Read the whole Electoral Fiesta series here