In political processes, elections are not an end in themselves, but one of the mechanisms through which citizens express their will. But if this act is exercised within the framework of the participatory and protagonist democracy, i.e., of popular democracy, not one of elites, then elections can be an effective instrument, within the different mechanisms of popular participation, for the development of the processes of political, economic, and social transformations.
Elections cannot be seen outside the political, economic, and social context in which they take place; and, most importantly, out of the degrees of freedom in the citizens’ political exercise within the different existing participation spaces; elections cannot be isolated from the social and economic conditions of the population either, because these conditions directly influence the real possibilities for citizens to express, freely and sovereignly, their opinions and political preferences; or, at least, entitle the citizens with the real and physical possibilities to participate.
There are elections in most countries of the world, with different modalities and degrees of freedom; but this mechanism not necessarily certifies either how democratic these societies are or the level of guarantees and rights their population has; much less, holding elections does not guarantee by itself a change in the dominant political-economic system. There can be thousands of elections and everything remains the same.
Many times elections allow legitimizing a system; thus the commitment of many governments that are scarce of elections is to hold them. This legitimacy, or the election results, is most often manipulated in one direction or another to achieve specific political objectives, as was the case most recently with the overthrow of President Evo Morales in Bolivia.
On many occasions, electoral processes are tolerated by the dominant classes, as a mechanism for relieving political tensions and as long as the results are in their favor. A tragic example of this was the Chilean elections of 1971, which allowed President Salvador Allende’s rise to power, only to be overthrown two years later by Pinochet’s savage coup d’état, encouraged by the same political and military forces that allowed “free democratic play” in that country for almost 100 years. In our region and in our country, we have enough experience to understand that elections themselves, isolated from other mechanisms of participation, become instruments of domination.
After the overthrow of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 and the violence of Betancurism (the 1960’s period of Rómulo Betancourt and his successor’s governments) in Venezuela, for more than 40 years, the elections legitimized and guaranteed the plundering in our country, and the domination system established with the Punto Fijo Pact, the Fourth Republic. By the way, the left-wing parties that abandoned the armed struggle at the end of the 1960’s spent years and years participating in elections dominated by the two-party system; however, they never exceeded 6% of the vote.
This is how the country would have continued, if Comandante Hugo Chávez had not burst onto the political scene with the rebellion of February 4, 1992. If he had asked to be discharged from the army in order to establish a political party and participate in the country’s elections, nothing would have happened. Despite his charisma, the Comandante would have been “swallowed up” by the system of domination of the Fourth Republic (the 1958–1999 two-party period), as it happened with so many other leaders and parties. He would have barely obtained, in the best scenario, 10% of the votes and, if the dominant classes and parties had felt threatened by him, they would have dealt with the Comandante in some way.
But Comandante Chávez came to power with a broad electoral victory. What changed? How could Chávez rise to power through the electoral route, in such adverse conditions and with a CNE (National Electoral Council) in the hands of the bipartisan system?
What changed was that Comandante Chávez burst onto the political scene “tearing up in an instant” the night of the Fourth Republic’s system of domination. His action on February 4, 1992 (4F Rebellion), although it was defeated militarily, meant an extraordinary political victory. It shocked society, reached the people still beaten by El Caracazo (the 1989 people’s uprising in the Venezuelan capital and other cities) and managed to mobilize them around an expectation of radical change with an agenda of struggle, radical and concrete ideas, with no pacts, and always being by the people’s side.
Chávez burst into politics in the death throes of the Fourth Republic, which was ruined by the Apertura Petrolera (the opening of the oil industry in the 1990’s) and exhausted by more than 40 years of the Punto Fijo bipartisan pact. The political elite were entrenched in power and divorced from the reality of the people who, subjected to the President Carlos Andrés Pérez-CAP’s program of monetarist adjustments, threw themselves into the El Caracazo riots in February 1989. With no political direction (the political left had already surrendered) the people were victims of the violent response of the government, which used the army to massacre more than 3,000 caraqueños in the streets of the city.
The violence unleashed by the CAP government accelerated the action of the Bolivarian sectors within the Armed Forces. The country got into a manifest process of political and social destabilization that only began to worry the dominant classes after the military rebellions of February 4 and November 27, 1992.
I would like to make it clear that I am just describing what happened then; this is not at all for making SEBIN (the country’s intelligence services acting as political police) go to the Mountain Barracks (El Cuartel de la Montaña; Chávez’s mausoleum), and start taking prisoners among any remaining 4F rebel officers who happened to be there.
After spending two years in prison and being pardoned by President Caldera in March 1994, Comandante Chávez took to the streets with the people. He organized and accompanied them in their struggles, without falling into the temptation of running for Governor of Barinas (his birth state). It was only later, in a peak moment of struggle by the people, when he did run for the 1998 presidential elections and won with 62.46% of the votes, despite all the traps and tricks laid for him by the system.
For Hugo Chávez, participating in the elections was the result of a more complex political action, which was developed with the people by organizing them, accompanying them, and understanding them. His electoral participation was decided as a result of deep political discussions within the MBR-200 (the political and social movement originally founded by Chávez) and other political and popular organizations.
These discussions were held within the framework of a deep crisis in the country and in its traditional ruling classes, with an expectation that change would occur in the country, along with the unity of the progressive sectors and an upsurge of the people’s struggles. All these factors -plus Chávez’s charisma and leadership and the huge amount of votes obtained in the election- managed to defeat the traps and maneuvers of the system’s parties.
President Chávez came to power through elections, avoiding the traps and crude maneuvers of the existing electoral process and defeating a refined system of domination established for more than 40 years in the country, which had powerful allies and interests behind it. It was a mistake of the system, which would not be repeated, so the channels of popular participation had to be opened.
Thus, the Bolivarian Revolution, being a peaceful revolution, had in elections and popular participation its biggest base for support and guarantee of existence. But, which elections are we talking about? What was the context?
After the Bolivarian victory, President Chávez made an effort to provide the Venezuelan people with a broader and more inclusive system of political participation. Politics -with a capital “P”, ethically speaking- was reestablished and concepts and categories of participation, complementary to each other, were included. Hence, based on the Constitutional Principle of Sovereignty resides in the People, the concept of Participatory and Protagonist Democracy was given life, as well as to the Electoral Power, to the universal and secret vote, to the Referenda (whether consultative or revoking ones), to the political rights and guarantees, to the full guarantee of the Human and Political Rights, to the freedom of thought, to the different mechanisms of real political participation in the decision-making process and the conduction of the people’s own affairs, to the Popular Power, to the Missions and Big Missions, among others.
I was in charge of the mobilization and logistics of all the electoral processes in the country, starting in August 2004 with the recall referendum, the Battle of Santa Inés, which became President Chávez’s approval referendum with a 60% vote. Our fundamental task was to guarantee that ALL the people could participate in the election, that the excluded people could mobilize, have an identity card, and could come down from the top of the cerro (the hills where many poor people live) and from the deepest part of the barrio (neighborhood), to exercise their right to vote: from Antímano, La Vega, Carapita in Caracas, through the poorest parishes of Maracaibo and La Guajira, to Barrio Brasil in Cumaná, the Turimiquire Mountains, or Coche Island in Nueva Esparta State.
The idea was that all citizens, especially the poorest, the excluded, the least well-off, could have the physical, objective possibility of exercising their right to vote. We did not ask for a political card (nothing like that existed, much less a “carnet de la patria-homeland card”); we did not make lists; we did not threaten anybody; we did not ask anyone to prove their political affiliation. The idea was that everyone could vote, and for making that happen, the humblest, the weakest, those who worked all day on election Sunday, the single mothers, the elderly, those with mobility problems, everybody, had to be provided with security, transportation, and facilities so that they could vote.
I remember the military forces providing security and us placing light bulbs in the neighborhoods of Caracas, to break the curfew imposed by crime at night, while the polling stations were open. People walked for kilometers, going down the cerros’ long steps and -carrying their poverty and dignity on their backs- standing in long lines at the voting centers that at that time were still distant and inaccessible to the inhabitants of the popular centers, of the barrios.
The high levels of participation -of 70% and 80%- achieved in the more than 14 electoral processes (counting referendum and elections) held from 1999 to 2012, gave account of a mobilized country, with citizens for whom the elections were a true and efficient mechanism of participation, and managed by an electoral system people trusted in, and which they also controlled.
I remember the invulnerability of the Automated Electoral System; there was no room for unauthorized access to the system, neither to the data transmission, nor to its totaling. “Smartmatic” company and the auditing processes during the development of the electoral process guaranteed the transparency and secrecy of the vote. There in the voting booth, in that private space, the citizen -just them and his/her conscience- expressed their political will. Sometimes we lost; many times we won. The votes clearly expressed the political situation of the country, the national feeling.
The most important thing about the whole electoral system established after 1999 was that the exercise of the vote was carried out within a context of trust in the institutions by the people, starting with President Chávez himself. I never saw him interfere in the electoral process, nor in its results, and he did not allow anyone to do so. It was the ethical and political position of President Chávez never to lie, never to manipulate; to trust the people and their conscience, because the people were really the protagonists, the essence, the center of the country’s transformation.
The elections were never easy; there was always the possibility of losing, and a lot of work was done from the political point of view. There was honesty and coherence in the programmatic proposal, in the debate with the country regarding the positions in conflict, what was at stake, the country we wanted, and the Chavista proposal reflected in the Plan de la Patria (the original Plan for the Homeland).
I have made this extensive account because the country is heading towards a new electoral process; this time, for the parliamentary elections. This election -located within the current political, economic and social context- requires a series of details and questions to be set and answered, in order to correctly evaluate whether to participate or not in the election. Let’s see:
- Three out of the five public powers of the country -the Supreme Court of Justice, the Attorney General’s Office and the National Electoral Council- not only lack legitimacy in the manner they were elected and appointed, but also they show in their actions how subordinated they are to the rulings of the presidency of the Republic; so, there is no separation and independence of powers. And without such key elements, is there any guarantee that these institutions will not act to further [presidential palace] Miraflores‘ political interests in an election?
- In the country, politics has been judicialized; lawfare prevails. The government has used the Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary to exercise political persecution, as well as to exile, disqualify or imprison their opponents. Are there guarantees for the exercise of politics?
- In the country, neither due process nor the right to a proper defense is exercised, thus violating constitutional guarantees. There are hundreds of political prisoners; more than one hundred managers and workers from PDVSA and other state public companies have been kidnapped in government prisons without the right to a defense or due process; more than 140 officers of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces have been kidnapped and are now in military prisons, subject to cruel treatment, with family visits suspended and not receiving medical assistance or the necessary food supplies. These prisoners are kept in isolation, their fundamental rights violated, and some have been tortured to death (such as Lieutenant Commander Rafael Acosta Arevalo), or are left to die in captivity, as it happened to Minister Nelson Martinez. A government that acts this way, is it the one that would respect the political will of the Venezuelan people?
- The State’s security forces (SEBIN, DGCIM/Military Intelligence Directorate and CONAS/National Guard’s Special Forces) act with impunity; they keep raiding, kidnapping, occupying main houses and taking hostages to pressure or punish political opponents to the government. Likewise, people who express opinions, write or speak out against the current situation in the country are taken into custody, as in the case of Professor Javier Vivas Santana. Therefore, it is valid to ask: in this environment of political persecution, can free political exercise and electoral participation be guaranteed?
- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, has declared in two reports that in Venezuela human rights are violated as a policy of the Venezuelan State. She has also denounced the actions of para-police/vigilante entities such as the FAES (National Police’s Special Forces), which was responsible for more than 5,800 extrajudicial executions in 2018. So, how can political mobilization and expression be guaranteed in popular areas?’
- The Comptroller General’s Office acts subordinate to the government’s rulings and uses “false positives” (fabricated accusations) to disqualify the political participation of the government’s opponents.
- The Ministry of Communication and Information and CONATEL (the national telecommunications commission) hold strict censorship and control over the media. There are political leaders who are censored; the government owns the main print media, and the rest of the newspapers and magazines are being silenced by denying them the inputs for their functioning. In the radio spectrum, concessions are taken away and fines and sanctions are enforced to those stations that allow the expression of opinions that differ from the government’s. Therefore, what guarantees are entitled and in what spaces can a plural and public political debate take place?
- The National Constituent Assembly (NCA) was established on August 4, 2017, more than three years ago, and its actions made it clear that its purpose was none other than to supplant the Legislative Power, assuming powers that do not correspond to the NCA, and exercising fraud against the Constitution approved by the people in 1999, by becoming a legislative body to supersede the National Assembly, and by issuing laws and approving decrees that are harmful to national interests and that violate the Constitution, such as those relating to foreign investments, the delivery of oil and gas, the privatization of PDVSA, and the delivery of the Mining Arc. In the face of this flagrant violation of the Constitution, what guarantee exists for a new Parliament to influence the political course of the government, without being able to legislate or exercise control over the actions of the Executive, if an elected National Assembly would not be able to elect the members of the rest of the Powers of State -the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council, the Comptroller’s Office, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office- as established by the Constitution?
- As a result of the last parliamentary elections in December 2015, the government used the Supreme Court first, and then the Public Prosecutor’s Office, to disqualify and prosecute opposition deputies in the Assembly. What guarantees are there for the same situation not happening to the newly elected deputies?
- The new CNE is changing the electoral system at will. August 9 is International Day of the Indigenous Peoples, and this new electoral body has taken away from our native peoples their representation, directly elected, in the National Assembly, the same representation that is enshrined in the Constitution. The new electoral council also changed the precepts of representation established in the Constitution to ensure that the current government never loses its absolute majority in the National Assembly. So, about what impartial electoral arbiter are we talking, if the existing one trashes what is enshrined in the Constitution?
- How to participate in an electoral system whose advantage of being automated was lost because of the intervention in its software, so that the former shielding became the main vulnerability, since the mechanisms of data transmission and totaling of results are not only exposed, but are now even influenced and manipulated by Jorge Rodriguez and others, as they did after the defeat of the parliamentarian election in 2015?
- The country is suffering the worst economic crisis of the last 150 years; 96% of Venezuela’s population is in poverty, 79% of them in critical poverty. There is no accessible food for the people, and 6.8 million Venezuelans suffer from hunger, they are undernourished. In such a dire situation, the government has established mechanisms of social control through programs that grant delivery of goods or aids in exchange for political support, such as the Clap Boxes and the carnet de la patria/homeland card, which include a system of bonuses. In this context, what real possibilities are there for the population to freely express its political will?
- How the hundreds of exiled people and politicians persecuted by the government could participate in the election, if we wanted to?
- How can any political action be developed in a country marked by fear, persecution, intimidation, threats of all kind in the workplace, on the streets, in the neighborhood, in one’s own home?
- Given the state of calamity in which public services currently are -no electricity, no gas, no water, no transport, no telecommunications, no internet; with crime and insecurity- how can anyone participate, if they wanted to, in such a paralyzed country?
- How will the more than 4.7 million Venezuelans who are abroad be able to vote, the vast majority of them abandoned to their fate by the Venezuelan state?
- How elections are called for in a country that is in total quarantine, paralyzed by the absence of means, not even able to feed its people, scourged by COVID-19 and all kinds of calamities and shortages, where people get a minimum wage of less than 3 dollars a month?
- What guarantees are there in a country where workers are repressed, persecuted and threatened for demanding their rights; where political parties -whether on the right or the left- are robbed of their symbols and possibilities of participation by the government, and where political parties’ boards are intervened and their leaders imprisoned?
Of course, there are many more elements, obstacles, and problems to mention. Anyone could argue that, precisely because of all this, one must participate; however, those who think this way underestimate the gravity of the internal situation of the country and the true nature of the government, of this group that has seized power in Venezuela.
This is a government run by five people who are willing to do anything to stay in power. The president and his closest circle lie compulsively, desperately, violently, and are willing to destroy the country, with no possibility of rectification. They will not allow, under any circumstances, a crack to open up in their monolithic scheme of power; they will not allow, as they have already shown, any political force to dispute them, even in a minority position, for power; that will not happen with this government.
In these circumstances, participating in the elections, in THESE elections, will serve no purpose -it will only give some legitimacy to a government that lacks popular support.
Having elections in such an arbitrary situation, in violation of the Constitution and the laws, will only contribute to keeping the people dispersed and demobilized.
This is not a question of becoming a compulsive pro-abstention, much less agreeing with those sectors on the right that are only asking for foreign intervention. It is a matter of not falling into the trap of electoral distraction, in the useless, sterile struggle for a seat that means nothing. Neither the elections nor this government have anything to do with Chávez or the Bolivarian bloc. The leaders of the madurista movement desperately need your vote, they need something to hold on to, they need political oxygen, and that’s why they appeal to the opportunism and gatopardism that the Comandante criticized so much in his speeches: to pretend that something is changing, so that nothing changes.
The popular and revolutionary sectors must, at this point, learn a little from our own experience and from Chávez. Today, it is a question of being with the people, with their problems, with their struggles.
The Venezuelan people, caught up in this tragedy, care little about these elections. The people want to solve their problems, they need guidance and accompaniment to recover everything that was taken from them; the future is hijacked, oppressed in the hands of these criminals who do not care about razing the country to the ground if needed to stay in power and maintain their privileges.
The patriotic sectors, progressives, workers, peasants, Chavistas, all of us must take to the streets to raise awareness about a simple and clear agenda: returning to Chávez; asking for the reestablishment of our Constitution and our laws and of our full oil sovereignty; fighting for the rescue of PDVSA and other state companies handed over to the new so-called “government agents”; demanding the reestablishment of our labor, economic, and social rights; fighting for the people’s rights, for the freedom of political prisoners, for the cessation of the violation of human rights, for the elimination of the FAES, for an end to impunity, for a decent salary, for the right to health, food, security, for the People’s Power, for the Missions, for water, electricity, gas, and petrol.
That is where the effort should be focused on; otherwise, people will continue to escape in any way they can, and the country will remain into the abyss it is now. The elections, these elections, in these conditions, are nothing but an instrument of domination at a time when the popular movements are ebbing. We must prepare a unitary agenda, a political action that brings light into the darkness imposed by madurism, an agenda that gives back to the people reasons to fight, the sovereignty over their own affairs. We must prepare and create the conditions to restore the Constitution and the full exercise of our political, economic, and social rights, together with the people. Then, we will have elections or overthrow these lousy rulers, but with the people in the streets and always with Chávez!