The day began at 3am, October 7th, when people in Caracas were awoken by fireworks and music in the streets for the day of the Presidential elections. Twenty hours later, and with no sleep in between, a massive crowd that had spontaneously forced it’s way into the grounds of Miraflores listened to the current President, Hugo Chavez, speak for an hour from the “People’s Balcony”. After a day of peaceful voting, he had been re-elected by a margin of 54.5% to his opponent’s 45%. Henrique Capriles accepted defeated, and Chavez praised the decision in his late-night speech. “They have recognised the truth,” he said, “they have recognised the victory of the people.”
We had awoken long before the sun had risen yesterday. In those early hours, as a festival-like atmosphere started to spread amongst neighbourhoods and barrios, I got a first glance of why there is something different about elections in Venezuela. Can any of us imagine waking up at 3 or 4am, to go out and vote for a politician? But the fact that Venezuelan people can, and indeed do so, speaks volumes about how much the vote means to them, and how much that they feel is at stake in this political process. By the evening, before results were released, we heard that the rate of participation was 81% of the electorate; a record in Venezuelan history, and up from the 75% of the 2006 elections. And here, as we drove through the dark but not deserted streets on our way to one of the barrios of Parroquia San Juan, was where it began.
In the mixed area we are staying in, we had heard both Chavez and Capriles-supporting songs being played, but the barrio we arrived in at 4am had an overwhelming presence of Chavez supporters. People are not allowed to wear any clothing with political messages on the day of elections, another way that intimidation of voters depending on their preference is prevented, but something about people’s eagerness to get things going gave us a clue. Voting didn’t begin for another two hours, and it was still dark, but as we arrived, people that had gathered made their way up the hill towards the local polling centre, one of 40 in San Juan and, comparatively, one of the smallest in the area, although we wouldn’t have known by the 35 people already surrounding the entrance. A bleary-eyed soldier opened the door to the polling centre, apparently not surprised by the early appearance, but there was much to be done. Clearly laid out posters were stuck up on the front wall of the school that was a polling station for the day, explaining the rules regarding voting, as well as three lists of people for the three tables inside that people would be able to vote at. Every time someone arrived, their name was marked on one of the lists with a highlighter pen. One of the rules reminded us of the ban on alcohol sales for the 48 hours preceding elections here; perhaps that’s why people are able to get up so early. By 6am, an orderly queue had formed and it stretched to over a hundred people.
It is important to explain at this point, I think, that Venezuela has one of the most advanced voting systems in the world. You are identified by placing your thumb-print on an electronic touch screen, making it extremely difficult to impersonate someone else, unless you have their thumb! Each candidate is distinguished by a clear photograph and name on the screen, no confusion there, and after pressing your choice the machine prints out a receipt to confirm it. Presuming this is correct, you then place that in the voting box. At the end of the day, votes are counted both electronically and by hand. In other parts of the world, it is the norm for around 18% of votes to also be manually hand-counted, just to confirm that results are correct. Here it is up to 60% that are counted by hand; they do not want to make mistakes in something that will determine the next six years of governance of the country. There are no postal votes, meaning that even disabled, elderly or unwell people have to travel to polling stations. However, as I very quickly found out, this does not seem to be a problem, and at every polling station I visited, I was immediately asked if I would like some help to go and vote! Disabled people are taken straight to the front of the queue. Which is lucky, considering the tail-backs as people queued for up to three hours in the sweltering heat to register their vote. From 6am, for twelve hours straight. Voting was officially meant to end at 6pm but, with people still queuing at polling stations, the process was continued until every single person had exercised their democratic right. That is the importance they place on that right; no-one is excluded or ignored.
And finally, each person dips their little finger in purple ink before they leave the polling station. It is a precaution to prevent anyone from voting more than once, but it was a powerful aesthetic; old people, teenagers, men, women, disabled people, families, all leaving with their little fingers raised in their air. We have made our voices heard.
We travelled around San Juan, one of twenty-two Parroquias that make up the west side of Caracas, with ten more in the generally wealthier east of the city. At the three main polling stations in San Juan, queues of people lining up to vote stretched around the block. Hundreds of people. We stopped off at one, and took a walk down the street. People lined up on one side of the road selling fresh juices, empanadas and papelitos, and on the other side, with the IDs in hand, ready to make their choice. The diversity of people was beautiful to see, as was their patience and relaxed nature. At 8am on a Sunday morning, it seemed as if no-one was at home. The streets were filled with queues of voters.
“There are a lot of poor people in San Juan,” one person told me, “so we will do well here,” referring to Chavez’ re-election bid. “In other areas, where there are more opposition… there might be more problems.”
Later in the morning, we travelled to the barrio 23 de enero, where Hugo Chavez was due to register his vote. A large crowd gathered to welcome him, after queuing for many hours to vote themselves, at the main polling station in the barrio. Again, I was offered help to go and vote as soon as I went to look around. When Chavez arrived in the early afternoon, the response was incredible. Mothers with newborn babies in their arms and young children of primary school age led the chants; “Uh, Ah, Chavez no se va.” Chavez is not going.
After a tiring first half of the day, we took some time to eat and relax at home before the evening. Undoubtedly, there are many problems that continue to be prevalent in Venezuela, but I felt a sense that I was witnessing something historic. It could be argued that although power is being put into ordinary people’s hands here, it could be happening more quickly. However, for the short term at least, people feel an emotional connection with Chavez and, importantly, that he is going to deliver on what he says. It is difficult for us to imagine a political figure that continues to draw such huge support after fourteen years in power, but that could be because we have never had one who doesn’t continuously lie and work to protect the status quo and financial profits above all else. Some people say that the process of power passing to the people needs to happen more quickly. Last night, however, it seemed that Venezuelan people were truly aware of how powerful they had become.
By 7pm, voting was still taking place. The National Electoral Council spoke on television to confirm that they were the only organisation that could release the official results of the election, and that any supposed “exit polls” should be ignored (especially considering polling on the day of elections is banned). The opposition had tried to point towards one such indicator earlier in the day, as had been expected, but it’s impact was minimal. The situation had remained calm and peaceful throughout the day. The results were far from being announced, then, but already we could hear celebrations in the streets. Car horns being pressed down, fireworks exploding in the sky, people exploding into cheers of jubilation. Who would have guessed that we still didn’t know who had won?
The army of support for the Chavez government clearly knew something that we didn’t. As we turned right onto Avenida Urdaneta, we saw people leaning out of cars waving Venezuelan flags, honking their horns incessantly. At the first major junction we came to, huge crowds wearing the famous red t-shirts were stopping traffic to celebrate. A massive convoy of motorbikes came zooming up the avenue and halted at the traffic lights, waving flags and posters to the delight of the crowd. We continued walking; every hundred yards or so were further crowds. Red t-shirts, purple little fingers. Families were out with their children. Most people didn’t seem to have a care in the world about the official results; they already knew they had won. There was not a single opposition supporter to been in the streets. Without exaggerating, I did not see one. It was a striking contrast with preceding weeks.
We continued walking. At Plaza Bolivar, we saw crowds gathering around black and white television screens and at the windows of buildings. Still, no results. As we got back out onto Avenida Urdaneta, the crowds were beginning to build. We were nearing Miraflores; the Presidential Palace. Then, we saw it. Thousands of people had gathered outside, and the celebrations had begun. An electric atmosphere paved our way towards the front of the crowd. People were dancing to music, huge Venezuelan flags glided through the air and the no se va chants, of course, continued.
We stayed for around an hour and half at the front of the crowd, struggling to believe or take in what was going on around us, before making our way a little bit back down the main avenue to where barbeques were sizzling. Food is never neglected here, whatever the occasion, and we thoroughly enjoyed our yucca and meat cooked in banana leaves, sitting on the pavement in the shadows of Miraflores.
“No way,” he replied, “we will definitely know. We just will.”
Less than a minute later, he was proved correct. We were standing in an open space near the middle of the crowd, and we felt a wave of energy swoop from one end of the avenue to the other. In a matter of three seconds, people were going crazy. We knew, everyone knew. Chavez had won.
We ran back towards Miraflores, where crowds were swelling now. In the hours that followed, however, something very special and that I will be unlikely to forget happened. As the sense of celebration, anticipation and jubilation grew, the crowds surged through the lines which had separated us from the palace itself. After racing down, and eventually pushing through the huge metal gates, we were inside the grounds of Miraflores itself. It was by no means a simple task; the pressure of the crowds was so great that it seemed as if the gates had literally burst. It took a great effort to protect people from being crushed, but we were successful. How could I forget the woman walking next to us, with her belly surely at least eight months pregnant, turning to my brother and asking if he needed help with carrying my wheelchair through?
There was no confrontation with soldiers here, because they are on the same side as the people. On the roof of the Miraflores building across the road, soldiers waved giant flags and waved their hands. People climbed up onto anything; traffic lights, platforms, even hanging from the metal gates we had come through. Palestinian, Cuban and Venezuelan flags were held aloft. Chanting continued as if we had only just begun. On the balcony of Miraflores above us, nicknamed the “People’s Balcony” a microphone was being set up. The implication was clear.
At around 11pm, Hugo Chavez came out to address the crowd, surrounded by family on both sides. As usual, he began by bursting into a rendition of the Venezuelan national anthem, and on this occasion was joined for an extended version. He spoke for over an hour, and was met with the type of response you might expect for someone who has just received the backing of millions of people, again. It is difficult thing to describe, but at times, it was hard to hear the words from his mouth.
He spoke for over an hour, on Latin American unity, on deepening the revolution, on socialism being practised today in Venezuela, on Venezuela being independent today, and on re-conciliation with the opposition. Finally, he spoke of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Venezuela, and raised Bolivar’s sword into the air. After exiting, he came back out for an encore, waving and hugging a Venezuelan flag in his arms.
“I am nothing without the people,” Hugo Chavez said, from the balcony of Miraflores.
That is what the people of Venezuela had proved, with their actions, and it was inspiring and touching to see. They have brought this process to where it is today, and they will decide its future path.
We made our way home with the tides of the crowd. Their party continued long into the night.