With Hugo Chávez’s election victory, the uncertainty that had built up about Venezuela’s future, sloppily fostered by the media in Europe and the United States, was swept away at a stroke. Venezuela enjoyed one of those great explosions of popular joy and excitement on Sunday night that occur just occasionally in Latin America, and of which I have been privileged to watch not a few. It may not survive – the euphoria created by Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution may evaporate as quickly as it began – but it should be enjoyed while it lasts. Chávez is the most popular figure not just in Venezuela but throughout Latin America, and it is high time that this was more widely recognised. Where in Europe can a politician achieve such popularity?
On polling day I went to Zulia, a state in the far west that borders with Colombia. The capital, Maracaibo, stands on the western shore of Tablazo Strait, which joins Lake Maracaibo to the sea. Oil derricks have been nodding on the eastern side of the vast lake since the 1920s. The state is also famous for its large and independent-minded population of Wayúu Indians, who have negotiated their relationship with the settler state with considerable success. Zulia, while alternating its elected governor between government and opposition in successive elections, has always supported the incumbent president. Sunday’s election was no exception. Chávez won handily in Zulia as in most of the rest of the country, losing only in Miranda and Táchira.
I am travelling as one of a small group of people who were recruited by the election authorities as international ‘accompanists’. In other circumstances we might have been called ‘observers’, but the Venezuelans found that expression too colonialist. We come from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, the US, Switzerland and Britain. We are a job lot of academics, lawyers, journalists and social activists.
On Sunday we left our hotel at 4.30 in the morning and set off for a tour of the polling stations. We have two senior military officers with us on the bus, both women, one of them a colonel, and are followed by a second bus with security back-up, and two motorcycle outriders. I first spent time in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and still find it difficult to remember that these days the military are supposed to be on our side. And so they are, a relaxed and friendly bunch. At one point we stopped the bus so the colonel could vote, and she found her husband in the queue. But she was whisked to the front so she could get on with her important job of guarding us (he wasn’t allowed to join her).
We had got up early in order to see the local team in charge of the voting booths prepare the ground, unpacking the voting machines from their cases and setting them up. The inexperienced team did their best, with an election official snapping at their heels like a sheepdog. Even at five in the morning, an hour before the polls opened, there was a queue round the corner of more that fifty people.
Just after six, Francisco Arias Cárdenas appeared. He’s running for governor of Zulia in December’s elections. At the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution since the beginning, he has had his arguments with Chávez but is now back in the fold. Formed in the military academy, once a candidate for the Church, he has also been Venezuela’s representative at the United Nations. He would get my vote as the man to succeed Chávez, if the president were to succumb to cancer, but that is not a widely held view. He came to vote at a school that he opened in 1998, bringing a vast retinue of advisers and television cameras that delighted the chavistas in the queue but irritated those planning to vote for Henrique Capriles Radonski.
We drove north, crossing the Limón river in the rain and into the territory of the Wayúu. At St Francis primary school in Sinamaica, the children’s work was still on the walls around the voting booths.
The Liceo Las Robles in Maracaibo is a private secondary school for boys only, run by Opus Dei. It had kindly loaned its building to the state for the day, and even left the air conditioning on. But the queue of upper-class inhabitants looked askance at the chavista accompanists, and we didn’t feel welcome.
We arrived at our last school at 6.30 p.m., half an hour after the sun went down and voting was supposed to have stopped. A handful of stragglers were still coming in to vote, but most of the tables had packed up. All day I had had a nervous feeling that Chávez might lose. There seemed to be a hefty vote for Capriles in many places in the city. Then I thought, well, this is Maracaibo, an opposition stronghold. Elsewhere things will not be so bad. At 7.15 I heard that our last school had done their electronic count and Chávez was winning three to one. Then I was told that we were in a very poor area, so the encouraging result was not surprising.
At 10 p.m. we retired to the local headquarters of the electoral commission to watch the results on television. Capriles’s grey face told us all we need to know. But no one was prepared for the large vote for Chávez, perhaps not even Chávez himself. The rector of the commission came out grinning from ear to ear (not as professional as he might have been, perhaps) to read the results, with Chávez ten points ahead of Capriles. An hour and a half later, Chávez appeared on the palace balcony, singing the national anthem and waving the sword of Bolívar.