When the night fell on November 21st, 2021, a 27-second video starring Manuel Rosales went viral on social media. The experienced Zuliano leader was singing “La Grey Zuliana”, the most iconic gaita protesta, specifically the verse addressing Virgen de Chiquinquirá:
Madre mía, si el gobierno
no ayuda al pueblo zuliano
Tendréis que meter la mano
Y mandarlo pa’l infierno.
At that moment, there was a strong rumor assuring that Rosales had won the governorship of Zulia for the third time. WhatsApp group texts were spreading unreliable results and dozens of local leaders were talking about “good news”. Famous journalist Nelson Bocaranda tweeted that “according to what’s coming from Maracaibo, it seems Manuel Rosales won.” Ángel Lombardi, the former president of Universidad del Zulia, replied: “Zulia tends to have an opposition heart. Our culture gave us the ‘gaita protesta.’”
Nothing was official yet. People had seen how Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT), Rosales’s party, had worked hard during the campaign in all the ridings of the state, but you couldn’t feel a truly electoral ambiance and turnout, as in any other part of the country, was so low that no one but chavismo would benefit. UNT faced important divisions, especially in Maracaibo, where Juan Carlos Fernández, a veteran of the party, ran for the mayorship with the new party Fuerza Vecinal, against the candidate chosen by Rosales, Rafael Ramírez; and Willy Casanova, from PSUV, was fighting for reelection.
However, there were some factors defying predictions. Nobody could know how many people would decide to vote in the end and for whom, but it was a fact that most Zulianos former PSUV governor Omar Prieto’s performance, unable to alleviate in four years the disaster in the provision of the most basic public goods such as power, water and waste management. According to some polls, Prieto wasn’t even popular within chavistas.
When CNE board member Pedro Calzadilla started to announce results after midnight, things looked bad for the opposition: chavismo was winning in 20 out of 23 states. However, the sky of Maracaibo exploded in fireworks as soon as Calzadilla said that Manuel Rosales had won with 505,059 votes, over 319,864 votes for Prieto, a turnout of 40.98%. The rumors were true: Un Nuevo Tiempo was coming back to power after nine years.
No One Like Him
Un Nuevo Tiempo was founded by Manuel Rosales in Zulia in 1999, with a “center-left framed in a social-democracy thought” ideology, as the party’s website used to say. The organization expanded to the rest of the country and was well-positioned when Rosales announced he was running for president against Hugo Chávez in 2006. Later, in 2009, Rosales had to flee the country when Chávez ordered prison for him under corruption charges. One year earlier, Pablo Pérez won for governor in Zulia with UNT, their last regional victory until 2021 (when UNT, joining forces with Acción Democrática, Primero Justicia, Voluntad Popular and Copei, among others, supported the winners of 63 mayorships).
“With this victory, I felt hope again,” admits Lilian Nuñez, a lawyer who has been a member of UNT for 22 years. “All the analysis and polls showed it was highly possible, but we didn’t just wait for it, we worked hard to achieve it.” According to her, UNT profited from the direct contact with people and the leadership of Rosales to make people vote. Given chavismo’s history, it was critical to be able to defend the vote. Nuñez says that UNT trained more than 100,000 people to defend the vote in every voting station.
Now, Nuñez expects that the new regional government, where she’s working again, can contribute to “rescuing the dignity of zulianos,” by honoring the promises on food and fighting crime, and empowering citizens to pressure the central government about the lack of power and water. This should be the most important thing for everyone in this state, one of the most affected by the collapse of utilities in Venezuela. Zulia’s Commission for Human Rights (CODHEZ) reported in August 2021 that “the inhabitants of the country’s second most populated state are suffering without water, cooking gas or reliable power … Pregnant women and children must collect and carry wood for cooking, and entire families have to walk several miles to find water.”
Professor and political scientist Jesús Castillo Molleda sees in Rosales’s victory a sign that the emerging opposition leadership didn’t take advantage of this politician’s absence.
Rosales came back to Venezuela in October 2015, was immediately detained, and was released from prison one year later, with other six people and no explanations. Meanwhile, in December 2015, the opposition managed to win over the National Assembly with 112 deputies. Un Nuevo Tiempo was one of the four parties with more parliamentary seats, and the third Speaker of their term, Omar Barboza, is a member of UNT. Yet, in all that time, no one in the party was able to replace Rosales as leader. And UNT is again the first opposition force in Zulia, but the election’s low turnout implies that “only with efficient governance can they restore trust among voters.”
What Young People Say
UNT abounds in politicians who have been active for many years. Rosales is 69 years old. But in the local legislatures, many young candidates were elected. This could help improve the party’s image after scandals such as the involvement of UNT lawmakers in the attempted cleaning of traces of business within Alex Saab’s orbit.
20-year-old Michelle González, a coordinator of Student Affairs in Juventud Democracia Social, who worked in the Rosales campaign, is sure her generation is a key part of this comeback. “This was a complicated campaign. Every day we worked hard to pass the message for a change in every town of Zulia. We know young people have to inspire change, hope, the importance of voting again, of being united, and I think we saw all this expressed throughout the state on November 21st.”
One example is Edecio Enrique Muñoz Fernández, sworn in on January 20th as the councilman in Machiques, a town in the Perijá sierra. At 22, he’s the youngest councilman in the state, and wants to work, he says, for a transparent, humane government.
Next Stop 2024?
While Juan Guaidó navigates the loss of personal credibility and the harassment of the Maduro regime, some parts of the opposition seem to be seeking the end of what’s left of the caretaker government. Former presidential candidate and governor Henrique Capriles appears to be working towards restarting the pressure against Maduro through supporting the good government from the new opposition governors and mayors elected in November (and January, in the case of Barinas), as a way to improve the opposition’s chances in the presidential elections that should happen in 2024 (all this with political prisoners, leaders unable to run for office, unstoppable abuse from chavismo). Capriles’s message on November 24th was clear: “No one owns the opposition, no one has its monopoly.” He openly supported Rosales’s campaign in Zulia and maintains that given that more than 9 million people went to the voting polls, voting isn’t a door “we can afford to close again.”
Ana María Osorio, a political strategist, thinks that the number of votes “make evident that Manuel Rosales is the leader of the political opposition in Venezuela, by winning the most populated state.” She says it’s very important that Rosales obtained his legitimacy “from the citizens’ support, not by self-proclaiming his leadership.”
“Un Nuevo Tiempo must consolidate its electoral force, coordinate its activism and prepare for future elections, including the presidency,” says Osorio. Castillo Molleda agrees with this: “If Rosales manages to get good results as governor of Zulia, and the same happens with Un Nuevo Tiempo mayors, Rosales could attract the attention of the rest of the country and consider the idea of becoming the presidential candidate through the method the opposition chooses to elect the unitarian candidacy. 2024 looks like a big opportunity for Rosales to promote unity.”
Yet Rosales isn’t trusted in other states. When he left prison in 2015, many speculated he made a deal with the government to support Henri Falcón and the fraudulent elections of 2018, therefore participating in the chavista strategy of fabricating a loyal, harmless opposition that could show a fake democracy and relegate more combative actors like Guaidó, Leopoldo López or even Capriles, who remains unable to run for office.
Luis Aguilar, a political scientist, doesn’t agree with the idea that Rosales negotiated the governorship he just won back, because “chavismo never gives away a power space. If that was true, Henri Falcón would have won Lara.” Aguilar thinks that Un Nuevo Tiempo and Acción Democrática, and people from Voluntad Popular not aligned with Guaidó, are just playing “according to the country’s political reality.”
Political scientist Carlos Chacón also says, like Aguilar, that it makes no sense that chavismo just hands out the most important state on behalf of a pact no one has seen: “As happened in Barinas, losing Zulia was a big hit for chavismo, two bid defeats the government couldn’t avoid with all its might.” Chacón, who works for the Unidos por el Cambio government in Buenos Aires (the party of center-right former president Mauricio Macri), doesn’t think “cohabitation is what Rosales wants, but winning space only through elections, even under a dictatorship.” Chacón thinks that Rosales must focus, for the moment, in doing a good job as a governor, before opting for the national leadership. “What led him to the presidential candidacy in 2006 was precisely his success in the governorship.”
Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported.
We’ve been able to hang on for 21 years in one of the craziest media landscapes in the world. We’ve seen different media outlets in Venezuela (and abroad) closing shop, something we’re looking to avoid at all costs. Your collaboration goes a long way in helping us weather the storm.Donate