Venezuelan opposition defeats Maduro candidate in Chávez’s home state

By Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent
Sergio Garrido celebrates after defeating the former foreign minister Jorge Arreaza in the Barinas governorship election
Sergio Garrido celebrates after defeating Jorge Arreaza, a former foreign minister and son-in-law of Hugo Chávez, in Sunday’s ballot. Photograph: Rayner Pena R/EPA

Venezuela’s opposition has claimed a rare and highly symbolic victory over Nicolás Maduro’s regime after defeating the government candidate for the governorship of Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas.

Maduro had hoped his former foreign minister Jorge Arreaza would win control of the region, which is considered the cradle of Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution”, in Sunday’s election.

The south-western state, where Venezuela’s late president was born and raised, has been governed almost exclusively by relatives of Chávez – his father and two brothers – since he was first elected in 1998.

However, Arreaza, who is Chávez’s former son-in-law and the father of his grandson, admitted on Sunday night that his bid had failed despite the Socialist party’s “heroic militancy”.

Electoral authorities said the little-known victor, Sergio Garrido, had secured 55.4% of votes compared with Arreaza’s 41.3%. “The triumph is for Barinas and all of Venezuela,” Garrido told Reuters.

Jubilant supporters streamed through the state capital on motorbikes and gathered at the politician’s campaign headquarters to perform Venezuela’s national anthem, a song that celebrates “the brave people who shook off the yoke”.

“Beautiful Barinas – it ends where it began,” tweeted Juan Guaidó, the leader of the failed US-backed campaign to topple Maduro.

Henrique Capriles, another key opposition leader, also painted the result as a harbinger of wider change and urged opponents of Maduro, who took power after Chávez’s death in 2013, to unite ahead of presidential elections in 2024.

“Only the unity of the people and the solidarity of its leaders guarantee the greatness of nations,” tweeted Capriles, quoting Andrés Bello, the Venezuelan philosopher who taught Simón Bolívar, the independence hero from whom Chávez sought inspiration.

Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for Crisis Group, called the result a massive blow for Maduro’s unpopular administration.

“This is not just any state. This is the rural heartland of Chavismo where Chávez himself was born and where his family ruled for over two decades. So, symbolically this is enormously important,” Gunson said.

Sunday’s ballot was a re-run of a vote first held last November as part of a nationwide round of gubernatorial and mayoral elections designed to help Maduro regain international legitimacy.

In that contest – the first that Venezuela’s mainstream opposition had joined since 2017 – Maduro’s candidates prevailed, winning 19 of 23 governorships. The opposition won three.

However, the Barinas election descended into farce after Venezuela’s pro-government supreme court disqualified the politician seemingly poised to defeat the official candidate – Chávez’s brother, Argenis – and ordered another election on 9 January.

Argenis Chávez withdrew from the re-run and was replaced by Arreaza, a party heavyweight, as Maduro’s administration battled to ensure victory.

“Not only did the government blatantly overturn a legitimate result in November but they then poured everything into Barinas,” Gunson said. “They made sure there was petrol at the filling stations. They were handing out fridges and cookers and cement and doing all the things that they haven’t done in the last 22 years – and they absolutely, totally failed.”

Like much of Venezuela, Barinas has been brought to its knees by a crippling economic collapse that has driven an estimated 6 million citizens to flee abroad. The agricultural region has also seen growing opposition to Chavismo, the political movement it helped spawn, although some affection for the late comandante, if not Maduro, remains.

During a 2018 visit to Sabaneta, the town where Chávez was born in 1954, the Guardian found a charred statue of him that had been torched by anti-government protesters.

One local composer-turned-dissident performed a song denouncing Chávez’s “malignant legacy”. “From here in Barinas, I want to ask my Venezuela for forgiveness. Because … it was here that the disaster began, it was here that the comandante who destroyed my nation was born,” it said.

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