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The Venezuelan election was off to an ominous start. At 2pm on Friday, I received a call from Táchira, near the Colombian border: someone, presumably right-wing paramilitaries had torched several large government buildings in San Cristóbal. Frantic calls flew around for a few hours, many thinking this the beginning of a broader campaign of pre-election sabotage, but no other stories emerged, and the remainder of Friday passed uneventfully.
The early hours of Saturday were characterized by uncharacteristic calm for a city the size of Caracas. Both sides maintained hope, and began to line up at polling stations. I spend much of the day travelling between radical barrios: first to 23 de Enero, where Chávez voted in the presence of a compact crowd of several hundred, prominently including the revolutionary collective Alexis Vive, named for a martyr lost in the 2002 coup. After voting, Chávez climbed into a small, red Volkswagon bug and drove off to spend time with family. Despite “dry laws” being in effect, beer is not entirely difficult to come by, even at 11am.
We move on to Caricuao, a barrio situated to the southwest of Caracas, to visit a local radio station. Caricuao, unlike 23 de Enero, has a sizeable opposition: around 20-30 percent, compared to something less than 5 percent in 23 de Enero. Organizers in Caricuao tell me that despite some concern Friday evening, when the opposition attempted to mount a guarimba, stacking tires outside voting centers to burn, they managed to defuse the situation. As we speak, they maintain a perimeter with walkie-talkies while following news reports and transmitting updates: it is this sort of grassroots management of information that reversed the 2002 coup.
As evening fell it began to rain, first lightly and then progressively heavier. So too did denunciations of the electoral process fall from the sky. On the one hand, we saw opposition supporters gathering outside voting centers, shouting to be let in to “audit” the process. Somehow, the opposition had instilled in their followers the asinine idea that the constitutionally-protected right to observe the electoral process meant that anyone at all could demand to be let in to watch the members of voting tables count the votes and transmit the data. On the other hand, a spokesperson for the Rosales campaign issued a denunciation of the forcible re-opening of voting centers, allegedly at the point of the National Guard’s guns, and for the purpose of allowing busloads of Chavistas to vote (buses figure prominently in hysterical opposition lore). Minister of Communication and Chávez campaign team member William Lara denied categorically that this had occurred at all.
A more serious claim emerged from the opposition team: after all sides had apparently observed the ban on exit polling and early results, it was alleged that Telesur had released numbers favorable to Chávez. Teodoro Petkoff and Roberto Smith, both members of the Rosales team, used this as an excuse to threaten the release of their own numbers, numbers which were alleged to point toward a Rosales victory. The tenor of this rhetoric reached a dangerous point when Pablo Medina got on the microphone from Rosales headquarters around 9pm. Medina, founder of the Chavista Patria Para Todos (Homeland for All) party, but himself a proud member of the opposition, began to pre-emptively attack the results of the election, calling on members of the opposition to take to the streets Monday to protest the fraud that was taking place. It seemed, for a moment, that the opposition was going to follow the plan proposed by the likes of Rafael Poleo.
For its part, the National Electoral Commission (CNE) acted with the utmost of caution: after having received data from 78 percent of election tables, the CNE opted for an extended meeting with international election observers prior to announcing results (in the past, such recognition has been difficult to achieve, as was the case with OAS recognition of the results of the 2004 referendum). At around 10pm, the CNE appeared on a national cadena, a direct simultaneous broadcast on all channels, with serious faces on. In retrospect, this made sense: it would have been an error to show the excitement that many members must have been feeling with the result. CNE president Tibisay Lucena announced initial results: Chávez with 61 percent, Rosales with 38 percent.
The first thing I did was go to the window and lean out. Living in an upper-middle class neighborhood, we had been forced to listen to the emotional outbursts of the opposition for several hours. Fireworks and the banging of pots of the cacerolazo had accompanied all announcements, as wealthy caraqueños struggled to maintain hope (these people, we should remember, specialize in maintaining hope against all odds, and against all logic). But now, Lucena’s initial results were met with a different, and clearly partisan response: a few shouts of “Viva Chávez!” echoed around the neighborhood, before being met with an ominous and deafening cacerolazo. The sound, for anyone who has experienced it, can only be described as eerie. More fireworks now, these clearly from Chavistas, and so we proceed to the roof, where a neighbor tells me that she had tried to convince herself that the government wouldn’t be able to steal a second consecutive election (the first, presumably, being the 2004 referendum). I don’t mention the difficulty involved in stealing more than 3 million votes.
She tells us that Chavistas are setting off fireworks in Plaza Altamira, so we go down to see. It’s still raining, and the Plaza is empty, but it’s not difficult to see where the Chavistas have gone: the Avenida Francisco de Miranda is a stream of vehicles, freighted with screeching Chavistas, headed from the eastern slums toward Miraflores palace in the west, where Chávez has just finished giving a victory speech. We catch the last westward-bound Metro, and like Lenin from Switzerland we speed toward the old city center, the train only slowing in the stations and only stopping when throngs of red-clad Chavistas are waiting on the platform.
The train is one big party, and we move from wagon to wagon to get closer to the chanting crowds. Upon reaching Capitolio, the train empties and all those inside begin to sprint up the stairs toward the only exit which remains open, to merge with the crowds on the streets, streaming North toward Miraflores and only pausing to launch fireworks from the street. The streets around the palace are choked with Chavistas: it’s 11pm, and the party is well underway, and it won’t end for days.
We find ourselves on Puente Llaguno, the now-infamous bridge where protesters were shot by snipers to prepare the ground for the 2002 coup. Now, it is adorned with a sculpture commemmorating the martyrs, and the crowds swarming all over it seem to be the best proof that, in an oft-quoted phrase, “No Volverán!” (“They shall not return!”). This and other chants echo from under the bridge, where we find ourselves sheltering from the increasingly-heavy rain. One particularly striking chant seems to have been developed precisely for the occasion:
Where are they now? Where are they now?
Those sons-of-bitches who said they were going to win?
The space under the bridge has become a celebratory bullfight of sorts: cars and trucks, packed with Chavistas, pass under the bridge to be met with cheers and songs from those gathered underneath, who wave flags and posters and pound on the passing vehicles.
With all of the celebrations, it’s impossible to find a cab. We walk back toward Parque Central at 2am, down streets which would be definitively off-limits at this time of night under normal circumstances. Tonight, however, every passing vehicle reaches out the window to show their ten fingers, to represent the ten million votes Chávez has been aspiring to garner. For the moment at least, everyone is a Chavista. When we finally score a taxi, we aren’t disappointed: “This rain,” we are told, “is the tears of the escualidos, the tears of the opposition.” Rosales has accepted defeat, and it seems for the moment that the opposition isn’t willing to go to the street to defend such a massive failure. “Chávez ’til 2021!” the taxista exclaims as we say a hearty goodbye: “Chávez ’til 2100!”
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D candidate in political theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Caracas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org