Vote shock in Chávez homeland underscores Venezuela's divide

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Julio Alvarez brews coffee at the kitchen of his farm in the outskirts of Barinas, Venezuela, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. Alvarez hasn't sold any milk in about two years even though the cows at his farm in rural northwestern Venezuela are milked around dawn every day. Serious fuel shortages and rationing made it impossible for him to transport it, except in plastic containers strapped around a motorcycle, and forced him to start making much-less-profitable cheese. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

BARINAS – Farmer Julio Álvarez hasn’t sold milk in about a year and a half even though the cows at his farm in northwestern Venezuela are milked at dawn every day.

Fuel shortages and rationing amid Venezuela's economic meltdown make it impossible to transport it to market, except in 18-gallon (70-liter) plastic containers strapped to a motorcycle. So he switched to making a much-less-profitable cheese.

Fed up, Álvarez was among the many people who voted for opposition candidate Freddy Superlano in last month's gubernatorial election in Barinas, the state that produced Hugo Chávez, founder of Venezuela's socialist system, and has been long governed by members of the late president's family.

Álvarez's vote contributed to the apparent defeat of Chávez's brother, Argenis Chávez, a stunning result that sent leaders of Venezuela's ruling party into an all-out battle to keep control of the state by retroactively disqualifying Superlano and scheduling a new election.

The moves in Barinas raised further doubts about the fairness of Venezuela’s electoral system following the first vote in years in which most major political movements took part, one monitored by over 130 observers from the European Union, the U.N. and the U.S.-based Carter Center.

The country's regional elections had followed months of formal and informal negotiations between the opposition and President Nicolás Maduro's government as well as the implementation of measures to improve relations with the Biden administration.

For many residents of this bastion of Chavismo, the Nov. 21 election was the moment to show the government that enough is enough regardless of last names.

“At this moment, even if they bring all the gasoline they want here, I don't think they will have a victory because ... the people are no fools,” said Álvarez.

Regardless of who wins the special election set for Jan. 9, for first time in more than two decades a Chávez will not occupy the governor’s office. Argenis Chávez — who is not running in the new vote — along with Adán Chávez and father Hugo de los Reyes Chávez have served as governors of Barinas since 1998.

Opposition supporters here say they want a change, hoping for a reliable supply of water, gas and electricity, as well as health care facilities, jobs and affordable food. They desperately want fuel.

Gasoline shortages are common across Venezuela, which holds one of the world's largest deposits of petroleum, but people in Barinas loathe a rationing system implemented by Argenis Chávez’s administration that effectively limited people to buying only a few gallons of subsidized gas every 10 days. That makes it impossible to drive the long distances typical of rural areas. Diesel is also in short supply, so tractors and other farm equipment are rarely used.

Superlano was ahead by less than 1 percentage point when the country’s highest court disqualified him on Nov. 29. The court ruled he should not have been on the ballot because of an administrative sanction imposed in August stemming from his work as a legislator between 2015 and 2020.

The court, which is one of many government bodies seen as loyal to the Maduro government, ignored a presidential pardon that had made Superlano and other members of the opposition eligible to run.

Argenis Chávez resigned as governor and candidate after the disqualification. The ruling party’s heavy hitters then arrived in Barinas and gasoline rationing ended before they even named a new candidate.

Oscar Vallés, political analyst and professor at Metropolitan University of Caracas, said the apparent defeat of Argenis Chávez “disconcerted” national leaders as well as "the official internal forces of Barinas state.”

"They never thought Superlano could win the governorship and it seems that Mr. Superlano has enough capacity to be a real threat to the political-economic forces — that is, to the revolution's circle of power in Barinas,” Vallés said.

The ruling party rallied its base with a gathering Sunday at a gymnasium that featured Maduro speaking via a livestream, urging unity and admitting that the party needed a new candidate “to go to the rescue” of the gubernatorial race. He announced former Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza as the next candidate.

After the rally, Superlano’s wife, Aurora Silva, was barred from taking his place on the ballot. Her substitute was disqualified, too.

A preliminary report from European Union observers concluded Venezuela's regional contests were held under better conditions than other ballots in recent years but were still marred by “structural deficiencies”, including the disqualification of opposition contenders.

The EU team has not commented on the situation in Barinas, but a report from the Carter Center criticized the court’s intervention.

“There was also a general atmosphere of political repression, and more than 250 people are being held as political prisoners,” the center said. “The tribunal’s recent decision to suspend the tabulation of votes for the governorship of Barinas is another example of its interference in the electoral process.”

Many of those who voted for Argenis Chávez blame the annulled outcome on a mix of overconfidence and divisions during internal elections. Party leaders never alleged fraud during the rally, but some attendees were spreading the rumor.

Others adopted the belief presented by national leader Iris Varela that Superlano’s disqualification was the "work of God.” Government supporters blame the country's problems on economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

“We are very happy and very proud of the decision of our dear President Nicolás Maduro,” local party activist Herlinda Roa said referring to Arreaza’s selection as the new candidate. “Long live Chávez, long live Maduro and long live Jorge Arreaza!”

Álvarez could not disagree more. He plans to vote for whoever ends up on the ballot for the opposition, though he concedes he has no hope the candidate will make anything better.

"He is only going to give us the satisfaction of defeating them. But other than that, he is not going to give us anything at all,” Álvarez said.