By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
The sound was deafening. Music blasted from all sides, and the crowd responded with ecstatic cheering. Illuminated by massive television screens, 26th Street was packed shoulder to shoulder for well over a kilometre, and more people poured in every hour. Some arrived as early as 10 am, and by the time the main act showed up at 7.30pm, many were passing out from exhaustion. Their limp bodies were collected from the mosh by the army and rushed to paramedics waiting on the wings. Later in the night, soldiers distributed bottled water, but it did little to cool off the crowd.
No, this wasn’t a rock concert or sports match, it was a political rally. On April 3, for the second day of his national campaign tour, presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro visited the city of Merida. For around an hour and a half he spoke about plans for the city, including propositions to reopen the airport, provide more student housing and new social programs to reduce crime. At every proposal, the crowd erupted in cheers.
By 9pm, Merida’s typically subdued central district was awash with red-clad Maduro supporters, waving flags and chanting revolutionary slogans. Street hawkers peddled Che Guevara t-shirts, caps branded with red stars, coffee mugs bearing the face of the late president Hugo Chavez and of course, litre upon litre of watery Venezuelan beer.
For a man occasionally mistaken for Chavez’s bodyguard during his time as vice president, Maduro now commands a level of affection from Venezuelans that would have been almost unthinkable six months ago.
However, much has changed since Chavez secured his forth term as president last October, beating his closest rival, opposition leader Henrique Capriles by 11% per cent of the vote.
On March 5, the country was plunged into a state of shock when Chavez lost his four year battle with cancer, and died in a military hospital in Caracas. A week of mourning was declared, marking the end of his fourteen years as president. Then Vice President Maduro was elected interim president by the National Assembly, pending new elections for the top job on April 14. Now, Maduro will face off against Chavez’s old rival, Capriles, who is again running for office.
Last December, Chavez anointed Maduro as his chosen successor, and it seems that Chavistas are heeding those last wishes. At the time of writing, the latest statistics from polling agency Hinterlaces gave Maduro a 20 per cent lead over Capriles, while last month a joint Barclays/Datanalisis report put his victory margin at 14.4 per cent.
The breadth of Maduro’s support was self-evident when he visited Merida. The rally brought together a broad spectrum of Venezuelan society, from retirees in faded red berets to students, radical communist parties, local anarchist organisations and of course, the working class and poor of Merida. The arrival of Maduro was first announced in many neighbourhoods by motor bikes draped in red that swarmed through the city. Elsewhere, trucks loaded with speakers interrupted the morning with a call to mobilise. However, even before those announcements, downtown Merida was already dripping with a fresh coat of political street art; much of which depicted Capriles as a US puppet.
As usual, the artists may have a point. In 2012, the US provided $20 million to opposition parties, some of which were involved in the failed 2002 coup.
Evidence of more recent US interference surfaced in February, when Wikileaks published over 40,000 documents related to US diplomatic and espionage operations in Venezuela from 2004 to late 2011. The leaks indicate that US-based intelligence firm Stratfor might be working with the Serbia based Center for Applied Non Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which appears to be trying to overthrow the government.
The day before Maduro visited Merida, Capriles made his own appearance, and likewise pledged to continue the social programs of the Chavez administration. However, while Maduro has adopted much of the former president’s radical anti-capitalist rhetoric, Capriles says his vision is closer to that Brazil’s former president, the social-democrat Luiz Lula da Silva (who has recently spoken out in support of Maduro, angering much of the opposition).
Capriles enjoys a strong support base amongst the Venezuelan middle class and business leaders, who have gained little over the last fourteen years of socialist revolution. In a city with a strong conservative streak, his visit drew a few thousand supporters. However, the rally was dwarfed by Maduro’s Chavistas the next day, who easily exceeded ten thousand.
Judging by public opinion, it appears that Maduro’s victory on April 14 is sealed. The future of Venezuela, however, is less certain. Chavez left behind a nation that saw dramatic improvements in living conditions over the last fourteen years; largely due to massive government investment in poverty alleviation and social development projects. Yet Venezuela is a country riddled with deep fault-lines. There is a palpable change in mood when moving between Chavista and opposition neighbourhoods. The private sector’s relationship with the government has flat-lined in recent years, with price controls and the threat of nationalisation grating on business leaders. Moreover, despite forging strong relations with most of Latin America and the Caribbean, Venezuela has become something of a dirty word in Washington. To some here, though, it’s the risk of factional disputes within Chavismo that may pose the greatest threat to the revolution.
The vote will not only test the ability of the left to maintain enthusiasm without Chavez, but also the capacity of the opposition to mobilise in the absence of their favourite scapegoat. However, the fate of the revolution will probably be determined over a much longer period. In the coming years, the struggle between those who wish to deepen, de-radicalise or dismantle Chavismo will continue. For now though, passions are running high, and Venezuela sees red.