December 10, 2007

Winning in Petare, shooting for Parapara

Katy says:
"All politics is local"
- Former US Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill.

Many things changed in the last election: chavistas stayed home or otherwise voted No; opposition people stayed home; the CNE declared an opposition win. Yet one of the few constants was the sharp disconnect between rural and urban Venezuela's voting patterns.

The victory of the No was concentrated in wealthier, mostly urban states such as Zulia, Miranda and Carabobo. Surprisingly, the No even won in places like Petare, thanks to the efforts of the student movement and local politicians who have been trekking those cerros for years now.

However, Chavez won in the rural Llanos and in places like Monagas and Bolívar, where the presence of the state looms larger than average. These results highlight how important local knowledge is in turning out the vote, and they also point to the obvious next step for the opposition.

Let's look at a concrete example. The state of Guárico overwhelmingly approved of the Constitutional Reform, 58% to 42%. However, neighboring Anzoátegui favored the No by 54% to 46%. Does this mean that somehow Guariqueños are more prone to communism than Anzoateguienses?

Hardly. The difference is probably due to the fact that the opposition retains some presence in Anzoátegui, whereas they are practically nonexistent in Guárico. In fact, most people in Guárico probably did not even find out there was an opposition in this election. Since Guárico has few elected officials that do not belong to chavismo, there is no student movement to speak of and Globovisión probably does not reach many homes in Calabozo, the government has a virtual monopoly on the state.

Even within Guárico the divide is clear. While in San Juan de los Morros, the capital, the "Si" option won by a hair (50.4% to 49.5%), the government won overwhelmingly in places such as Parapara, trouncing the opposition 70% to 30%.

The issues in rural Venezuela are different than in the cities. People in rural areas don't care much about high-brow concepts such as "freedom", "democracy" and "Cuba", but more about basic things like health care, education, land reform and patronage from the state.

Without a permanent presence in rural Venezuela, it's simply no contest for the government. People in Parapara don't watch Globovisión, and they haven't the foggiest idea who opposition politicians such as Manuel Rosales or Yon Goicoechea are.

In both rural and urban Venezuela, turning out the vote is crucial, and the most effective way of accomplishing that is by having local authorities on the ground. Local politicians make the difference. They know their neighbors, they can quickly scan voting centers, they can rally volunteers, and yes, they can establish patronage linkages - after all, this is Venezuela we're talking about.

Our victory was a narrow one, one that can be quickly overturned. We must build on it by staging another one, and continue to prepare for more important battles down the road. Regional elections scheduled for October 2008 are the perfect way of building on that - we can't do worse than how we did in the last ones, and we have plenty of time to get organized, build coalitions and sustain our momentum.

Furthermore, political parties have suffered from not having a way of channeling the efforts their faithful have made into something else. After all, people join political parties (in theory, at least) because they want to participate in public policy and effect a change in the country. Parties that cannot deliver on these goods suffer after a while. They are channels for making a change, but if we keep relying on a mainly volunteer force that cannot make changes and where the volunteers cannot actually *work* in public life, parties will wither down and die, and with them democracy.

To me, regional elections are the way to go. If we want to get ready for further battles, we need to start casting our net a little more widely. Elected local politicians can help us accomplish this more easily. Everything else is a distraction.