The curse of the Venezuelan primary

October 4, 2004

Somebody sent me an e-mail related to the previous post asking me about the history of primaries in Venezuela. When have they taken place? How have candidates been selected and when were primaries used? I will attempt to do this from memory, which is quite risky, but I have always been interested in Venezuelan politics and thus think that I will have the main events in the proper perspective. One thing is for sure, winning a primary  appears to be a curse.

In the forty years prior to Chavez, most candidates were selected by a mixture of caucuses and conventions. Each party would select in each state it representatives, not necessarily in a primary and they would all go to the national convention where the candidate would be elected.


In the first election after the Perez Jimenez Dictatorship, most parties had a natural leader, Acción Democrática had Romulo Betancourt, COPEI had Caldera and URD had Jovito Villalba. In the first election, URD threw its support behind the Junta President, Admiral Wolfgang Larrazabal, Betancourt was the natural candidate of AD and Caldera ruled COPEI like his own personal kingdom, so that each party went thru the motions of selecting their candidates in conventions, but nobody could really oppose the selection of the natural candidates of each party. Betancourt won the election running away and led Venezuela until 1964. I really don’t recall, but I am sure Leoni and Caldera were elected by party conventions without primaries in 1964.


In 1967, Acción Democrática was deeply split between its mostly urban “left wing” with Prieto Figueroa and Paz Galarraga at the helm and its more traditional rural “popular left wing” with Betancourt backing Gonzalo Barrios. A primary was held in which all AD party members could vote and was won by Prieto Figueroa. Betancourt came back from self-imposed style and chose Barrios, AD divided itself into two parties AD and MEP, and Caldera barely edged Barrios. Thus, the two participants iun the AD primary failed to beat their opponent. The curse of the primaries was born.


Everyone thought AD was done in Venezuelan politics, since it only had the dwindling rural support, but Carlos Andres Perez modernized AD, implemented the first modern media campaign in the country’s history and was selected by his party to run against COPEI’s Lorenzo Fernandez. He won running away.


In 1978, AD held a primary in which Piñerua and Lusinchi faced each other. Piñerua won the primary but lost the election to Luis Herrera Campins, who was elected at his party’s convention in which reportedly a man with a briefcase full of money bought votes right and left at the last minute to tip it over Herrara Campins way. For the second time, the winner of a primary failed to beat the candidate chosen by the opposing party machinery.


From 1978, no primaries were held in Venezuela as far as I can remember, although I recall MAS holding a primary (1983?) to select maybe Petkoff as their candidate at some point. (Can anyone help here?) In 1993, COPEI front runner Eduardo Fernandez decided to throw open the selection of the candidate for his party to everyone that wanted to vote, whether a COPEI member or not. Then Governor of Zulia Oswaldo Alvarez Paz ran against Fernandez. I remember the excitement, Fernandez was considered a traditional politician, Alvarez Paz the maverick challenger, people were excited and many, including myself even though I never sympathized with COPEI, showed up to vote in the primary. Fernandez lost the gambit, losing severely with almost two million people participating. He lost so badly that the votes were never all tallied.


Alvarez Paz, who disagreed with Carlos Andres’ impeachment, disappeared from the political scene for a month and a half after the April primary. In May Carlos Andres was impeached. Caldera came back to Venezuela in July refusing to back his former protégé Alvarez Paz and becoming the candidate of the left. Once again, a primary winner managed to lose the election. Alvarez Paz came in third to Caldera’s first and Fermin’s second. Participating in a primary had become in Venezuela more of a curse than a democratic blessing.


1998 was sadly the year of the self-appointed candidates. Chavez, Salas Romer, Irene Saez and Alfaro Ucero all appointed themselves as candidates without even bothering with formalities of having a selection of the candidate. The rest as they say, is simply history.

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