Asdrubal Chavez is a walking tribute to his still-revered cousin as he stumps for congress. Hugo Chavez’s eyes peer out from above the bill of his red baseball cap. The late president’s signature is emblazoned on his red shirt.
But conjuring the image of the founder of Venezuela’s socialist revolution may no longer be enough for a person named Chavez to win elected office in this ranching state where the late leader and his five brothers were raised.
The family’s grip on Barinas, which it has governed since the late 1990s, appears to be slipping amid what polls indicate is a nationwide turn against the well-entrenched party Hugo Chavez founded.
Poll predicts defeat
Many on the plains continue to adore the late president, who grew up in a dirt-floor shack here. But in the 32 months since his death, support for his newly rich brothers and cousins has ebbed as food lines worsen, crime spirals and complaints mount of inefficiency, corruption and cronyism in local government.
A home-turf defeat in Dec. 6 congressional elections would badly wound the governing socialists, who tightly control state institutions after 16 years in power. If the United Socialist Party of Venezuela can lose here, it can lose anywhere. And indeed, polls predict it will suffer its first-ever national election loss.
“The Chavez I knew would never have accepted this reality,” said Gaspare Barraco, 59, a retired auto body painter who grew up playing stick ball with Hugo and his brothers. “I can’t get my diabetes pills. I haven’t been able to buy chicken for a month. Everything is sacrifice now.”
He and other neighbors grumbled on the sidelines as Asdrubal zipped through a handful of prescreened homes Monday in the boys’ old neighborhood in Barinas, as both the state and its capital are named. Hugo’s younger brother Argenis, a candidate for another of the state’s six congressional seats, had canceled at the last minute.
The socialists currently hold 60 percent of Venezuela’s 167 congressional seats. Independent polls show the opposition on track to win back control, and within striking distance of a two-thirds majority, which would allow them to rewrite key laws.
President Nicolas Maduro has vowed to prevent that “by any means.” Party leaders in Barinas have plastered the streets with ads, and election officials redrew districts this year to take a seat from an opposition-leaning part of the state and add it to a government stronghold. The socialists and opposition each have a lock on one of Barinas’ six congressional seats; the opposition hopes to win the other four.
During the early days of Chavez’s presidency, vocal opponents in Barinas weathered withering insults, attacks with rocks and threats from pro-government gangs who fired guns into the air as warnings. Julio Cesar Reyes, the best known opposition congressional candidate, was nicknamed “Judas Cesar” by a furious Hugo Chavez in 2008 after he broke with the movement and ran against Adan for governor. Two opposition leaders were shot to death here in 2012, another killed in 2013.
Shrinking margin of victory
But the ranks of defecting voters have been slowly growing in this state, which looks like a collapsing version of Texas, its buildings sliding into rubble and the cowboy bars closing early as crime soars.
Hugo Chavez’s margin of victory in his home state shrank from 40 percentage points to 20 when he won re-election in 2012. A month after his March 2013 death, his handpicked successor, Maduro, won Barinas by less than five points.
Later that year, the opposition took the Barinas mayor’s office and it sees victory ahead in the congressional races. It commissioned a poll by the respected national firm Datanalisis that shows it ahead by 10 points in one of the state’s two districts, neither of which the socialists have ever lost. One district elects a single congressman and the other picks three, with two more chosen on a statewide level.
Opposition candidates are venturing into towns where they’ve been absent for more than a decade, including Sabaneta, where the Chavez brothers lived during their early childhood. The opposition advocates liberalizing the economy and promises to stop people named Chavez from using the state as its personal fiefdom.
“The Chavez family is fighting with the people, and they’re fighting among themselves,” Barinas Mayor Jose Luis Machin said.
Long-standing rumors of family bickering have been revived as Gov. Adan Chavez backs mainstream socialists while his relatives support candidates from the party’s dissident wing.
And then there are the mansions, designer clothes and caravans of imported SUVs acquired by the once-poor Chavez clan. It’s difficult to hide wealth in this sparsely populated state the size of Maryland, which is among the country’s poorest.
Chavez’s brothers and parents now live in Barinas compounds that stretch full city blocks. Last week, guards transported an elaborately coiffed Pomeranian lapdog from behind the 10-foot walls of the parents’ estate to their farm, which neighboring ranchers say has steadily expanded since the family took power.
Dusty Sabaneta has become a Hugo Chavez Disneyland. Signposts direct visitors along a commemorative route that includes newly painted biographical murals, the party headquarters, and his childhood home, which reopened last year as a tourist attraction.
It is difficult to measure how rich the Chavez family has become. An Associated Press reporter who attempted to find information at the public registrar’s office was refused access, and was aggressively questioned during a brief detention by the SEBIN secret police agency.
The Chavez brothers’ government jobs pay less than $300 a month, calculated at the widely used black market exchange rate. The opposition says they use a network of front companies and false deed holders to hide growing agricultural holdings.
The National Assembly and prosecutors’ office, both controlled by the ruling party, have found no wrongdoing.
Stalled public initiatives dot the landscape. A $700 million international airport promised by the late president seven years ago has barely been started, while a $100 million soccer stadium is unfinished after nearly a decade.
Governor Adan Chavez, who is a year older than his famous little brother, denies there’s growing discontent.
“What change can these traitors of the revolution really promise? Everyone knows Chavez is the one who made all of the changes here,” he said in Barinas.
Few here speak ill of the late president, but complaints of unfulfilled promises seep into even tiny Sabaneta.
There, Lourelis Rosario shares a one-room shack with her husband and three children, with limited access to water and light. She plans to sit out the elections in protest, though she’s not yet ready to vote for the opposition.
Other voters say they will continue to vote for the Chavez clan out of loyalty to the leader many say they mourned like a father.
“I’ll support this family until I die, and even after,” retired secretary Arminda Perez said.
She had come to a rally to tell Chavez’s cousin Asdrubal about the frequent robberies on her block. He promised to improve lighting on her street, then turned her toward the cameras.
She pressed his hands in thanks, and they repeated the campaign’s slogan, “Chavez lives.”