Venezuelans in the state of Barinas – where Hugo Chavez was born and where he nurtured his Bolivarian socialist revolution – will vote in a one-off election on Sunday that has taken on national significance in the battle between President Nicolás Maduro and his opponents.
The vote is the result of a dispute during regional elections in November, when Maduro’s dominant socialist party (PSUV) won 19 out of 23 state governorships nationwide against the opposition’s three.
The competition in the remaining state, Barinas, was too close to be proclaimed, although partial results suggest that the opposition’s Freddy Superlano eliminated the PSUV’s Argenis Chávez, Hugo’s younger brother, to become state governor.
But then Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which is chock-full of Maduro supporters, suddenly said Superlano had been banned from public office, even though it acknowledged its victory. He is said to be facing possible “administrative and criminal proceedings”.
The court ordered a repeat of the January 9 Barinas election – without Superlano.
For the opposition, it was proof that Maduro’s socialists would do nothing to hold on to Chavez’s emblematic home state. Superlano was released to stand weeks before, and no one raised any objections until he won.
What happened next is reminiscent of Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega captured and disqualified his main opponents in the run-up to recent elections.
Superlano said his wife would run in his place, but election officials said she was also banned, without explaining why. The opposition named another candidate, but he was also disqualified. Eventually, the opposition settled on Sergio Garrido, a 54-year-old local politician.
“They will come up with any old excuse to make sure we do not win the governorship,” Garrido told the Financial Times. “But if they try again this weekend, it will go very badly, not only with the international community, but with all Venezuelans, who will realize that they [the socialists] are tyrants who want to cling to power at all costs.
“This is a referendum for them, because they know that if they lose Barinas it is the beginning of the end for the PSUV. “The eyes of the whole country are on Barinas, and what is happening here this weekend will spread all over the country.”
Analysts say the election exposed the dictatorial nature of Maduro’s regime, which he tried to overwrite during November’s elections.
“Barinas sums up very well how Chavismo behaves and what could happen if there was ever an election that really threatened Maduro’s grip on power,” said Eugenio Martínez, a Venezuelan political analyst, journalist and election expert.
“If the Chavistas lose an election that is important to them, they will find a way to turn it around and stay in power. In that sense, Barinas is Venezuela. It sums up everything that is wrong about the Venezuelan political process. “
Since the first vote, Argenis Chávez has withdrawn from the competition. This means that for the first time in 23 years, there will be no Chávez on the regional ballot paper on Sunday.
Hugo Chávez’s father was governor for nine years from 1999 before Hugo’s older brother Adán took over and ruled Barinas for another nine years. From 2017, Argenis Chávez was in charge, ensuring that the state remains a family property.
In a sign of how important the race is for the Socialists, the PSUV named Jorge Arreaza as its candidate for the replay. A former foreign minister and former son-in-law of Hugo Chávez, Arreaza is a party heavyweight, close to Maduro.
“I will NOT let Chávez down!” Arreaza wrote on Twitter after Maduro was nominated. “We are going to govern the commander in a way [Chávez] would have dreamed of! Hope has returned to Barinas! ”
But the way the regime and electoral authorities handled the vote has provoked widespread criticism both inside and outside Venezuela.
The US-based Carter Center, which sent observers to the November poll, said the Supreme Court’s decision to ban Superlano was “another example of its interference in the electoral process”.
Ricardo Sucre, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, said events in the state “reinforce the image that it is not a reliable government”.
The EU is likely to keep a close eye on Sunday’s vote. It also sent a mission in November and is preparing a detailed report on the elections that will be published soon.
The competition drove Barinas, an agricultural state of livestock farmers, open plains and just 1 million inhabitants, to the national stage.
“People are really upset. This is the cradle of the revolution and yet there is nothing here. There are no jobs, ”said Yorman Berrios, the 37-year-old owner of a hamburger event in Barinas.
“Out of every 100 people, only two have a good thing to say about the government. They lost by a mile here in November and they are going to lose again because people who did not vote last time go out and vote this time. People are fed up. ”
Additional post by Vanessa Silva in Caracas