Caracas notebook: Not seeing the Capriles excitement

Five days from now, the votes should be counted in Venezuela’s first presidential election in six years and people can stop speculating about how the race will turn out. Unlike the vast majority of elections around the world, this one could change the politics, policy, and even demographics of a significant-sized and reasonably important chunk of the world — and the place that may have more accessible oil than anywhere else.

For now, we’re in the campaign, and from what little I have seen in two days in Venezuela, the excitement is greater on the side supporting incumbent President Hugo Chávez, rather than challenger Governor Henrique Capriles.

That is exactly the opposite of what I’ve read on most of my favourite English language websites about the country, but it’s the truth. To put it very simply, Capriles’ campaign looks like a very well run, professional campaign, and not a grassroots movement. Chávez’s campaign has elements of both.

For example, as I have wandered through Caracas’ richer east end and poorer center for the last two days, I have seen more cars and buses decorated with Chávez slogans than with Capriles slogans. I see very little graffiti, stickers or lapel pins in favour of either side. I see a lot of people wearing pro-Chávez T-shirts that read “Misión 7 Octubre,” a reference to election day. I see far more street stencils for Chávez. I see people driving around supporting Chávez in vehicle and motorcycle caravans. At a kiosk in the center of Caracas today, a worker offered me a silkscreen print of “CHAVEZ” if I came back with a T-shirt. Tonight in Altamira Plaza, the spiritual heart of the upscale east end, there was a very good punk and ska show in favour of Chávez.

Obviously the government can pay for all the logistics of this — the sound systems, posters, and so forth — if Chávez’s PSUV party happens to fall short of funds. And it can oblige workers to go to big marches. And some of the lack of Capriles marketing may be that people are scared to show support for him, after seeing the fate of those who opposed the government in past elections. But it’s hard to get people to go out and blow horns in favour of someone if they really don’t support him. The musicians’ sound system may have been paid for by the state, but they weren’t paid to say “Viva Chávez carajo.”

Several times, I have been around grassroots movements to force out an unpopular machine candidate. I recall the mayoral insurgencies in San Francisco that almost got Tom Ammiano and Matt Gonzalez into the mayors’ office. Both failed, sure — but they were real movements, with a vast pack of people working day and night to bring about change. With Capriles, I see some volunteers in the street, but they are giving out party-produced flyers, not hand-written screeds or home-made stickers. These seem to be people who are glad to have found a possible saviour from Chavismo, rather than people who are excited to support their candidate.

I am working with very few hours of data observation, but up to now, I don’t see the Capriles excitement everyone is talking about. And with voter turnout as a major variable in the outcome of the race, that lack of excitement could matter on Sunday.

“Come back at 3 pm with a shirt and we’ll silkscreen it.”

Capriles gets a sign, Chávez gets people waving his T-shirts from the balcony at a newly built (still under construction, actually) public housing project on Av. Libertador, Caracas.

Pissed at the government for failing to provide housing for 13 years following disastrous floods in Vargas state? Yes, they are. Showing support for Capriles? Sorry, nope.

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41 Comments

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41 responses to “Caracas notebook: Not seeing the Capriles excitement

  1. Lucia

    “Very few hours of data”….actually, no data at all…

    • An observation or two of your own would be more useful than nitpicking about my word choice.

      • Lucia

        I really enjoy reading you…because you don’t drink anyone’s Kool-Aid. But in this case something about a few hours of casual observation translating into a larger point feels….irresponsible. Surely you’re not suggesting Capriles does not have very passionate support in his base? Since just a small percentage of voters are in play…and they are the last folks who would engage in open displays of political support….we have to believe that it’s impossible to really know anything from a walkabout.

        • Thanks for the nice note. I am sure Capriles’ base is passionate. I am talking about the amount of spontaneous or spontaneous-looking, person-to-person type propaganda that I saw. Chávez is ahead on that game. If the Caprilistas are excited, they aren’t showing it by hanging signs in their windows, decorating their cars, giving out home-made flyers on the street, graffiting, stenciling, etc — at least not as far as I can see. I saw a lot of slick, professional stuff, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Capriles won the election. He’s clearly got a shot. But I was surprised by the lack of movement stuff — the sort of thing that I saw around the referendums a few years ago — so I posted. I don’t really think it’s irresponsible, and I would be very surprised if an English-language blog with a few hundred readers a day were to move the vote.

        • Lucia

          Irresponsible as a conclusion, not irresponsible as in this-post-will-change-the-outcome! Maybe it’s just the headline.
          In any case, the points still stands — since we know Capriles has a base, and we know partisans are more likely to engage in outward shows of support…are there any developments between the referendum and now that people would feel more reluctant or be less likely to individual acts of propaganda? Certainly one sees great creativity at the events and rallies — with lots of homemade signs, face paint, etc etc. Maybe doing that outside the context of the (relative safety) of a march would feel like drawing a target on your own body.

  2. Surely the Caracas Sunday multitude with Capriles suggested enthusiasm. From what I hear (I have not been in Venezuela since 2003) Capriles meetings all over the country have been extremely well-attended, in contrast with Chavez’s languid campaign. Your observations, however, are very important, since you are an experienced journalist.

    • Seems to me like both sides have had plenty of attendance at their events, at least based on photos. And both sides show photos that indicate low attendance at the opponent’s rally. I find it all very hard to judge.

      • Miguel Pitiyanqui

        Setty- What Chavez has over Capriles is bottomless pockets full of our oil money that he vomits up in copious quantities for his campaign-therefore all of the propaganda you see-he can afford to place gigantic billboards with his bloated face every 10 meters along our highways, pay people $100 a piece to get on government owned buses, take them halfway across the country to pump up attendance at his poorly attended rallies and obligate government workers to dress up in red shirts paid for by every Venezuelan whether supporter or not of his failed ”ROBOLUCIÓN” and attend his rallies under threat of loosing their government jobs.
        VIVA CAPRILES!! HAY UN CAMINO!!

      • Roberto N

        Except Steven, that there are many examples of photoshopped photos (valga la redundancia) of Chavez rallies, whereas Capriles has not needed any “photo tricks” all the people in those rallies are actually there.

  3. Setty,
    Like you, I’m getting a totally different impression from other blogs (admittedly, none of them are pro-Chávez). What you are painting is a grim reality, but I’d like to think there are some explanations of why street-presence shouldn’t automatically translate into ballot dominance. The main reason might be that people in the pro-Capriles camp are afraid of showing public support in small groups for reasons that range from being public servants to just being afraid of pro-government thugs. This even applies to property: would leave your car parked outside showing a “Hay un Camino” stamp? If so, you are a brave man.
    Anyway, regardless of the reason for the big differences in “casual” support (clearly rallies and big demonstrations are a different game), I don’t expect the race to be as open as your observations suggest. Any candidate might win, yes, but if we are to take your observations as an informal poll, preference for Chávez could be in the order of 4:1 (3:1, 10:1)?? Anyway, that’s all I can say without being there, but even if I don’t like what you report, thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Hahaha, no, I don’t think visible support=voting preference! By no means. I trust the polls are right about what people want, which is to say that there’s a very competitive race.

  4. Cort Greene

    As part of the disinformation campaign by the opposition( media both their and US) it is to make it seem that the election is being stolen from them, thats why all the hype that they are ahead or even close but there real plan many say is Guarimba Plan Part 4 (violent destabilisation).

    • Jeez, dude. This isn’t a disinformation campaign, it’s called hope. Both sides have been rather obviously preparing the groundwork for fraud claims. Step back and think: you really think that a bunch of independent bloggers are part of a criminal conspiracy to disinform people? I suppose we’re all in it to lie about 9-11 too…

    • Miguel Pitiyanqui

      Cort-do you call the Capriles rallies yesterday in Guanare, Portuguesa and Maracaibo disinformation campaigns?
      Those rallies where part of Plan Guarimba?
      Is not Portuguesa supposedly rojo rojito?
      Did not look very rojo rojito yesterday and you call this a plan by the opposition to destabalize the country!

  5. No mention by Hugo of the Caracas Capriles meeting! Apparently this never happened.
    Mr. Greene is right. And the leader of this violent move is Henry Rangel Silva. Mr. Greene might want to read the declarations made yesterday by Chavez’s Minister of Defense.

  6. Nice wake-up call. Questions/comments though:

    1) You seem to put a lot of value in physical signs of Capriles support, but as Hugo notes, you’re probably putting your property/job at risk if you a) put up a Capriles sign/sticker or b) in some cases, don’t put up a Chavez sign/sticker. Plus, I would bet any Capriles posters/signs that are put up disappear overnight. It is not, after all, San Francisco. Given that it’s pretty clear that at least a large portion (say 40%) of Venezuelans are going to vote for Capriles no matter what, doesn’t the fact that 99% of the visible campaign support is for Chavez kind of take most of the meaning out of that indicator?

    2) Apparently in the 1990 election of Violeta Chamorro, something like this happened. One day, everyone was wearing Daniel Ortega T-shirts and saying they were going to vote for him, the next day Violeta won by a landslide. Anyway, you probably saw the post at Caracas Chronicles: http://caracaschronicles.com/2012/09/25/how-were-like-nicaragua-in-1990-and-how-were-not/

    3) Which brings me to my third question/comment: What are people saying when you talk to them? What’s the feel, the buzz? If they’re all “meh,” that would really worry me.

    Looking forward to hearing more from you on this, stay safe….

    • 1: I saw a lot more open, grassroots work around both of the constitutional referendums. Lots of people had political slogans written on their cars at that point. I never heard of people facing consequences for it.
      2: Yup, that’s right
      3: Of course there’s a huge range, from vigorous Chávez to vigorous Capriles to annoyed by both. I see no way to guess percentages based on personal conversations.

  7. jp

    Capriles’ closing rally in Caracas was last Sunday and before it there was movement on the streets calling people to attend.
    Chavez’ closing rally is tomorrow and I assume they are stepping up efforts in preparation for it, and thus the caravanas, flyer giveaways, etc

  8. Kepler

    You don’t see the excitement, “won”, you feel it.
    :-p
    If you know where we can find one billion petrodollars to spend for the next two days, you will “see” a lot of excitement..

  9. yoyo

    Glad to (finally) read a sobering account of the opposition campaign from someone who wants it to succeed.

    The only two places HCR can attract impressive crowds is Caracas and Maracaibo.

    He sticks to small towns mostly, because to give speeches in places like Acarigua would expose his feeble crowds to direct comparison with those of Chavez.

    • How do you know what I want? As I said on twitter: Chávez is a full-employment program for reporters.

      • yoyo

        Actually, we’ve debated Chavez in person. In the hostel in La Paz last year. Forgive me if you don’t support the opposition because that’s the only impression I got…

        • Haha, I had no idea who you were. Nice to see you again! No but seriously, I am doing everything I can to act as a neutral observer of the process here. I take seriously my position as a guest in a country run by and for its people, and have no interest in interfering with the debates and elections and such. The corruption, sure — that I’d love to affect. But this isn’t my country, and while most of my friends are probably more sympathtic to the opposition than to the government, it can’t be my fight.

  10. namkai

    The problem with journalism in situations like this, is that you need to know the stories rather than just observe outer events.No discredit intended, just what I think is a clarification needed.

  11. Carlos

    For people who want to know what is really going on in Venezuela and the elections, I suggest you read this blog:

    http://devilsexcrement.com/2012/10/02/an-update-on-what-i-think-will-happen-in-venezuelas-presidential-election/

    http://devilsexcrement.com/

  12. otto

    In other news, English language blogger on Venezuela dares to make a noise that seems he might be slightly saying something that could be construed as potentially positive for Hugo Chávez. Said blogger is drummed out of the blogging club by others.

  13. Mayke

    Where did you chose to walkabout? Better, go to 23 de enero and tell me one of cowboys.

    • Bellas Artes, Capitolio, Av. Libertador, Altamira, Los Palos Grandes, Campo Alegre. If you can’t see the difference between my post and Cowboy in Caracas, you need more than glasses.

  14. syd

    context is everything.
    and while walking in all those Caracas areas will give you a certain whiff of common sentiment, that whiff has to be tempered with other factors, most of which have been cautioned here, by respondents, rather than by you in your post.
    I’d say that a pending closing rally by Chávez, in Caracas, and the wish to promote and sell paraphernalia related to it, would give sentiment a certain spin that was not present, last Sunday, when evidently, nor were you, in order to give a proper comparison.
    and please spare me any hyper defensiveness. There is no need if you are certain of your premise.
    I, frankly, am not sure what the outcome will be, this coming Sunday. But I’m certain that Capriles will have a great future as he matures in national Venezuelan politics.

  15. Max

    I took a weekend to visit the cacao farms near Carupano In Sucre. I was in heavy jungle and deep in Chavez territory. Down the dirt road I saw a group of old/middle aged men all wearing RED PSUV shirts and hats. They were tired, dirty, missing teeth and spoke “interesting” spanish. I was with a good friend and co-worker on a pick up truck, and we offered them a ride. After the social formalities I asked them “So are you guys Chavista?” They were not taken aback at all, they simply shook their heads. They were wearing red clothes because it was given to them for free. they were disappointed with the government in Sucre and in Miraflores. They told me how the local government steals basic resources for themselves (water, electricity gas)
    It was incredible. I was so curious I interviewed several of the locals, about 5 family heads (mostly fishermen) told me how back in 2006 pensions were promised for Chavista votes, none of which, at least in this case were paid.
    Met a lot of locals (I have no numbers) but I was astounded that no one said they were chavista in SUCRE. Luck? Most likely…Lies? probably…

    But Chavez is ubiquitous through sheer habit of being in power for 14 years. He has endless monetary resources. What you were seeing is a culmination of an expensive marketing campaign. The marketing you have seen on the streets is superficial. Its like judging a girl’s intelligence by the look and feel of her face.

    I think that if you had tried to talk to some of the random locals your opinion would have significantly altered for more Chavista or Less.

  16. sapito

    All of these leave me cold.

    In San Felipe I have seen only once a car with a Capriles sticker, while the Chavez one I see them every day, starting with my next door neighbor, possibly the lone chavista of my block. And yet I am taking a bet with you that in San Felipe itself Chavez is losing 60 to 40.

    My S.O, went last Sunday to Bolivar and you can see his own pictures in my blog, two hours before Capriles arrived. He also works as a public employee and has been told that he needs to attend tomorrow Chavez rally and that probably his badge will be taken from him when they pass attendance and only returned to him after Chavez finishes his speech.

    I have a important paper I need for my business and we have been informed that we can forget about it until next Tuesday because the office is ferried to Caracas tomorrow. This actually could cost me a fine, if it were not that the other government office will also be drafted to Caracas.

    I am not going to partake in some of the silliness on what I read above, but I will tell you that this is an entry that you may have wanted to wait a couple of days more before writing. Or never written for that matter.

    Regards

    • Jeez, daniel d, stop firing at the froggy messenger.
      Do I like what Setty saw? No.
      However… do I think it’s going to change Capriles’ campaign in any shape or form? Nope.
      Perhaps he managed to convince a couple of borderline voters that they should go for omnipresent Chávez? Yeah, right, todos los días sale un pendejo a la calle, reads Setty, and decides who to vote for…
      Take Setty’s report for what it is: an observation. It’s not going to change anything but it definitely gives us more color on what’s happening over there. The more anecdotes we hear, the merrier (and thanks to Max’s over there in the comments for giving me a great dose of hope!).

  17. You know, people — you could just see this post for what it is, which is free campaign consulting for the Capriles side. Or you could stick your fingers in your ears and tell me that I might regret writing this post. If you don’t like my report of my personal experience, your best bet would be to either say “well ok, but that doesn’t mean much” (as Daniel and Syd and Max do) or change the experience. But please stop writing comments telling me that I just don’t understand.

  18. FinalCutProx

    it seems to me that Sapitosetty understood the situation better than many . He was able to get a more objective view on things while some of us were driven by our feelings. Unfortunately Chavez has won.
    Sapitosetty i wanted Chavez out but i enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi, I really appreciate all the feedback on this post, but I have to say it must have been poorly written. I really wasn’t aiming to prognosticate about the election. I was just reporting what I saw and sensed. And as some commenters said or implied, further time in the country changed my perspective somewhat. I did end up seeing Capriles banners and signs in the windows of people’s homes — but only in El Valle, which appears to be a uniquely contested area. Anyway onward, both campaigns fought hard and I think the next elections could be very interesting.