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María Corina Machado and the conquest of the Chavista ‘far West’

Venezuela’s opposition candidate seeks to conquer a political space traditionally occupied by Chavismo — a crucial step toward removing Maduro from power

Maria Corina Machado
María Corina Machado, at a press conference this Wednesday in Caracas.Ryaner Peña R. (EFE)

If you want to know why the Maduro government is so scared of right-wing opposition candidate María Corina Machado, you have to look past her landslide 92.3% victory in the recent primaries. The margin itself is staggering, but what worries Chavismo even more is that Machado has managed to mobilize popular sectors of the population in areas previously considered to be pro-government strongholds.

The images from October 22 of long lines of voters in the Venezuelan interior and western Caracas unnerved the Chavista power structure to such a degree that it resorted to denialism, with one ruling-party governor claiming that “the primary does not exist; it’s nothing.” That multitudinous “nothing” contrasted sharply with reports of almost empty polling stations during the December 3 referendum on the annexation of Essequibo, in spite of the high participation reported by the National Electoral Council — claims that several observers have questioned. The primary results also point to Machado’s strategy for the upcoming 2024 elections, not only as a presidential candidate, but as leader of the Venezuelan opposition. The conquest of Venezuela’s “far West” represents her greatest political opportunity.

Until now, the only candidate to demonstrate an undeniable capacity to compel popular sectors to vote for the opposition in presidential elections was Henrique Capriles Radonski. In 2012, when he ran against Hugo Chávez — at a time when the president had already been sentenced to death by cancer but continued to squander his showmanship along with millions of petrodollars — Capriles proved that no neighborhood was impenetrable, and that Chavismo was not invulnerable. Six months later, in April 2013, when he faced Nicolás Maduro and a Chavista machine in control of all state institutions and resources, Capriles nevertheless managed to come within one point of winning the presidency.

Ravaged by economic crisis, a biblical exodus of migrants, and state terrorism, today, Venezuela is but a specter of that former country. But the lesson of Capriles’ candidacy remains a useful one: that the opposition has a lot to gain when it musters the courage to compete in Chavismo’s home court — that is, to struggle over its physical and geographical terrain, but above all, over the symbolic spaces where the rational needs of individuals and the emotional needs of the collective converge, to allow for a reimagining of reality, and ultimately, for its transformation.

Until quite recently, this space had clear symbolic and class boundaries. It was known in Venezuela as “the West.” In the Newspeak imposed by Chávez, all opposition leaders and their followers, the so-called “escuálidos,” or pathetic ones, came from the wealthy sectors of Caracas located in the east and southeast of the city. Within this Manichean mythology, Chávez was, so to speak, the avenger of the popular classes that populated the western part of the city.

Although this polarized vision is very much a caricature, it was almost universally accepted. For more than a decade, and until the very recent past, Caracas remained sharply divided between an opposition East and a Chavista West. The Plaza Altamira was the epicenter of opposition protest, and was considered the heart of the East. Beyond Plaza Venezuela, a kind of geographical navel of the capital, was the West — the bright red, “rojo-rojito” territory, where Chávez reigned with ease and the opposition protests faced harassment by Chavista militias and brutal repression by police.

Machado has begun to conquer the figurative West of Venezuela’s political imagination. By backing her candidacy despite the Maduro regime’s arbitrary political disqualification, voters have become her Greek chorus, boosting her candidacy over the opposition political parties.

Machado’s support across Venezuelan society presents her with a dilemma — to be the opposition candidate in a presidential election, or to be something more than that: a national leader capable of taking root in Chavismo’s former support bases. This, perhaps, is why focusing all her efforts on the 2024 presidential elections may not be the best strategy. It would be ideal to defeat Maduro in a free and fair election, but it seems likely that the current government will use the Essequibo controversy as a crude ruse to postpone the vote. In fact, the regime has already made moves to harass Machado. Maduro, through the Public Prosecutor’s Office, has had arrest warrants issued against Machado’s collaborators, accusing them of treason, among other charges. Thus, while she is still at liberty and still in Venezuela, Machado must continue to penetrate into the country’s real and mythological “far west” to transform a desire for change into a broad citizen’s movement that can repudiate the regime.

So far, Machado has managed to clearly identify the target of her political message: Chavista socialism.

Attacking socialism is not new in Venezuela. But when the country was living through the biggest oil bonanza in its history, that kind of preaching failed to gain traction. To promote socialism, Chávez not only created the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), but literally sold his tropical version of the ideology: a socialism that merged frenetic consumerism with lifelong clientelism. In 2010, when he launched the program “My well-equipped house” with an eye toward the 2012 presidential elections, Chávez proclaimed: “I’m becoming a salesman. A salesman of socialism to defeat the salesmen of capitalism.” And in a tweet, he wrote: “I sell refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners. I’ll also sell you gas stoves. Good, nice and cheap!” During those years, the work of the Chavista government all bore the same stamp: “Hecho en socialismo.”

Chávez’s socialist dream engendered today’s misery. In mid-November, 96% of Venezuelans rated their purchasing power as very low, according to a poll by Meganálisis. For Rubén Chirino, the survey group’s director, it makes perfect sense that the opposition candidate has found it fruitful to attack socialism. “Anti-socialism resonates, and it represents an opportunity. Venezuelans were eager for someone who embodied it, and Machado has done well with her disruptive anti-socialist speeches, which propose to value hard work and study through the economic empowerment of citizens. By undervaluing work and study, Chavismo created Venezuelans who were dependent on the state, parasitic Venezuelans. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the polarization that sustained Chavismo is gone. The Venezuelans of today are not going to miss an opportunity to escape Chavismo, and Machado represents that opportunity.”

But speeches are not enough to remove the Maduro regime from power. Machado needs a convergence of conditions ranging from maintaining U.S. and European backing, to persuading Gustavo Petro and Lula da Silva to support an electoral path in Venezuela, to leading opposition forces loyal to democracy, to attracting the support of the military and facilitating the inclusion of civil society into a broad political movement. But all of this will become clearer as Machado’s political leadership moves westward. And so, as they say in the old cowboy movies, Go West girl!

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