The rain couldn’t dampen the mood as supporters of President Hugo Chávez celebrated another six-year term. On the night of 3 December 2006 they gathered in front of the palace’s ‘balcony of the people’ to embrace their leader and shout their approval. But as Chávez views it, they weren’t cheering for him so much as clamouring for socialism.
‘Over 60 per cent of Venezuelans voted, not for Chávez, but for a project called Bolivarian socialism,’ he declared. Chávez won with 63 per cent of the vote, his opponent Manuel Rosales earning 37 per cent.
The day started early, with people lighting fireworks and playing CDs of bugle calls to awaken voters. Long lines trailed out of voting centres in an election that saw a mere 25 per cent abstaining.
Chávez showed up to cast his vote in the 23 de Enero barrio, a centre of leftist activism, driving a revved-up revolutionary-red VW Beetle. Wearing his trademark red shirt, the leader waved to a small crowd of supporters before going in to vote.
Waiting for Chávez, Freddy Bernal – the pro-Chávez mayor of Libertador municipality in Caracas – promised victory. He attributes the leader’s success to his rock star persona: ‘Chávez creates a collective hysteria. It’s beyond reason. If you had reason, you wouldn’t do these things.’
Veronica Flames, a secretary in the Ministry of Education, voted for Chávez. ‘I like what he has done through the missions,’ she said, referring to social programmes such as free literacy classes. She is quick to add: ‘I didn’t sign against Chávez,’ harking back to a petition for a presidential recall vote, which Chávez easily won in August 2004. Many have reported losing government jobs or contracts for their opposition sympathies, suggesting the President has a definite authoritarian streak.
But it is Chávez’s message of inclusion and vindication that inspires the Alexi Lives Collective, one of many collectives in 23 de Enero that fiercely defends the revolution.
‘For 40 years of “representative democracy” we were excluded,’ said Chiqui Ramirez, an Alexi Lives member. ‘We want a different model, one that’s socialist, that rescues the human being’s dignity.’
‘No one should fear socialism!’ shouted Chávez to his rain-soaked supporters. ‘The kingdom of socialism is Venezuela’s future.’
That future has to first be enshrined in the country’s constitution. Proposed constitutional reforms will provide for ‘social’ and ‘collective’ forms of property, regulate prices and profits, and give ‘popular power’ a constitutional status, ranking alongside the judicial and executive powers.
Chávez also wants a referendum on his indefinite re–election, which critics say would make him ‘President-for-life’. Supporters argue that the people’s will, more than Chávez’s, is what will be enshrined in the constitutional reform. And if the people want Chávez past 2012, when this new term ends, that’s up to them.
The long journey to Venezuelan socialism has passed another key milestone. On election night, from the balcony, Chávez the rock star couldn’t help but taunt his arch-enemy to the North: ‘We have taught US imperialism another lesson about dignity. This is another defeat for the empire and the devil, which seeks to dominate the world.’José Orozco
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