Machado's Tour in Rural Portuguesa Shows Grassroots Chavismo’s Rebellion

The viral images around Maria Corina are a case study on the obliteration of what was Chavismo’s mighty political control over the western Venezuelan plains

In an improvised assembly in Guanarito, Portuguesa, a 16-year-old mother takes the microphone: “This government is useless. Nowadays they teach three times a week and sometimes they don’t teach because there is no water, there is no electricity, there are no supplies in our houses,” she says, explaining that when she was pregnant she did not have anything to eat and that her mother had to migrate to Colombia with her son. At the climax of her speech, she says through tears: “We believe in you.”

These words are addressed to María Corina Machado, a political leader who until a few years ago was considered by many “the ideal candidate for Chavismo” due to her wealthy origin. But, some three or four years later, she has become not only the politician with the highest approval rate in the country: but also Chavismo’s main threat to remaining in power.

The thing is that the teenage mother, in a multitude that turns on the flashlights of their phones to illuminate the Guanarito rally, is just a postcard of the frenzy that Machado awakened on her tour of the rural Portuguesa –a state that in 2012 gave Hugo Chávez the highest percentage of Chavista vote per state in the entire country– that languishes beyond the Acarigua-Araure axis: men crying in Turén when they saw her, crowds in Biscucuy rallying to see the opposition ‘candidate’ after a Diosdado Cabello rally, human seas in Chabasquén or parents carrying their children to hold Machado’s hand.

What has happened in the former electoral base of Chávez which is nowadays identifying with the nemesis of the Bolivarian project; with a right-wing woman, from an aristocratic family from Caracas? It is a phenomenon that we could describe as the rebellion of grassroots Chavismo against Nicolás Maduro.

The sociologist Héctor Briceño, in his article “Rebellion in the 2021 Regional and Municipal Elections”, demonstrated that in those elections, despite the fact that the ruling party obtained 19 of the 23 governorships and 211 of the 335 mayoralties, “the results represent one of the worse electoral performances of the PSUV (…) deepening the loss of support and capacity for mobilization.” Briceño explained that, despite the sustained Chavista hegemony, the ruling coalition lost a significant number of votes, the majority in its traditional strongholds: rural, sparsely populated and economically depressed areas, “where the mechanisms of political and social control tend to be very more powerful (…) All of this suggests an exhaustion of the party machinery and that the crisis has also hit the government, deteriorating both its loyalties and its coercive capacity.”

Machado’s rally in Chabusquén.

In these elections, the state of Barinas became the symbolic epicenter of the electoral battle. After the victory of the opposition candidate Freddy Superlano over Argenis Chávez –a brother of Hugo Rafael– and the suspension of the elections by the National Electoral Council, the possibility of revenge activated in Chavismo all the strategies that had been effective in the past: a candidate with a high public profile, Jorge Arreaza, also related to the father of the revolution; members of the Executive actively campaigning in the entity and the deliverance of appliances and other benefits to induce a vote in favor. The result was counterproductive: The Chavista proposal lost by a much larger margin of votes, thereby confirming Briceño’s diagnosis.

Barinas can be considered the beginning of a trend. The opposition primaries, held in October 2023, confirmed the decline of the ruling party’s former hard-line electoral base, which was always estimated to be equivalent to the number of public employees in the country (4 or 5 million people). The National Primary Commission announced that the voting in the process totaled 2.4 million votes. However, the importance lies in the quality of electoral behavior, in which in territories traditionally dominated by the ruling party –both in cities, towns and rural areas– the queues were just as enthusiastic as in the east of Caracas.

In contrast, the rebellion of the old Bolivarian base against its leaders was once again evident in the lack of participation in the Esequibo Referendum. Although the official discourse assures the delirious figure of 10 million voters – not even reached in the best days of Hugo Chávez, when there was no immigration crisis – the traditional electoral strategy of the ruling party had hit a ceiling. Esos reales –those for marketing the Essequibo vote– se perdieron

Machado’s rally in Guanarito, Portuguesa.

The signing of the Barbados Agreement, hours before the primary elections, meant for the ruling party certainties that had no basis: That the internal contradictions of the opposition were going to sabotage the primaries and that the arrival of fresh money, without sanctions, would be enough to repeat the winning formula of 2018, a well-oiled electoral machinery plus the fragmentation of its rivals and the inhibition of the oppositional vote. 

Chavismo today is a victim of its own communicational hegemony and its echo chambers. For the first time in their history they are not sure of the size of their captive votes. The Chavista electorate is as dissatisfied and outraged as the rest of the population.

In the glory days of Hugo Chávez, his vindication and idealization of the people forged the connection with the broad sectors of the population that placed desires and hopes in his figure. Although Maduro formally maintains the same elements of that speech, the equation “being rich is bad” –after years of impoverishing living conditions and the consolidation of the privileges of the ruling elite– no longer excites his followers. 

María Corina Machado projects a different imaginary that seems to be the one that is in tune with people’s demands today. What could that imaginary be, more linked to the middle class? Omar Zambrano and Hugo Hernández, in a paper for the Inter-American Development Bank, make an inventory of its indicators: Owning a house with quality infrastructure, permanent public services, no children lagging behind in school, adults with completed schooling, secure employment with sufficient salaries and owning durable goods such as a washing machine, a refrigerator and a car. Machado projects these possibilities to la Venezuela profunda.

Unlike the Chavista intelligentsia, which criticizes the government in public or private but in defining moments will continue to vote for what the PSUV decides, the former electoral base of the ruling party has assumed the opposite behavior: Saying that it is Chavista, for protection, but expressing its deep discontent in an environment –the vote– that they still consider safe. The obstacles to a democratic transition are enormous, and with the election date known, the race for the elections is beginning. That for the first time Chavismo has no people to show, which suggests an important citizen maturity, is the main reason for hope.