Queues at a polling station in Venezuela. The presidential election had a turnout of over 80 per cent.
Emotions can be difficult to summarize with words. How does one portray the atmosphere of thousands of grassroots political activists (at least, that is how I would describe Venezuelan voters) flooding into the streets and celebrating, before the election results have even been announced? How does one convey the scene of ordinary people waking up at 3.00am, queuing to vote at polling stations from 4.00am for an election that doesn’t even open for another two hours?
In last Sunday’s Venezuelan presidential election, people queued in the sunshine for hours; they voted in their millions – over 80 per cent of the voting population – and then they celebrated throughout the night. The experience could not be more different from that of those of us in places like Britain, more used to the form of ‘representative’ democracy that we, erm…enjoy?
There are positives and negatives to be taken, from the point of view of those who voted for Hugo Chavez’s successful re-election, although you would have had trouble discerning that from the dancing crowds who pushed into Miraflores, the presidential residence in Caracas, and heard Chavez speak for over an hour from the ‘People’s Balcony’, late on Sunday night.
Chavez won in 22 of the 24 states in Venezuela, and his 8,133,952 votes were more than he has received in previous elections. However, the opposition did manage to close the gap to 11 per cent, far closer than the 26 per cent Chavez won by in 2006. Nevertheless, to win by over 1.5 million votes would, in many other countries, be considered a huge feat, a landslide even, and only in comparison with previous, astounding election results in recent times in Venezuela does the term ‘closer’ seem appropriate.
There is one thing which Sunday’s figures fail to convey, however. The majority of Venezuelan people, the poorest sections of society – single mothers, black people, disabled people (who were helped to the front of voting queues!), young people, indigenous people – feel that there is something to defend here in Venezuela. It is all well and good to take a back seat and dismiss the Bolivarian Revolution as all rhetoric and cult of personality, but there is clearly something more profound taking place.
At every polling station I visited on Sunday morning, long queues twisted and turned their way up streets and around corners as people waited to vote, often for up to two hours. Their vote means something here. Old people and young came out with their little finger stained in purple ink – one of the precautions used to prevent anyone from voting more than once – and held it proudly in the air. Even after voting had closed, some hours after the official end time of 6.00pm due to continuing queues, people’s determination and passion for these elections continued. How could I forget, as we swelled into the grounds of Miraflores amidst near-crushing crowds, struggling just to stay on our feet, the heavily pregnant woman who turned to my younger brother and asked if he needed a hand lifting my wheelchair?
It was during those moments, when the celebration turned into a march and a late-night presidential speech, that I got a sense of the people leading this process. Speaking from the balcony, Hugo Chavez could not have been clearer in his sentiment: ‘Without the people, I am nothing!’
And his words were true. Without the people of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez would never have been restored to power after the 48-hour coup d’état of April 2002. His defeated electoral opponent, Henrique Capriles, actually took part in that coup, but that didn’t stop Chavez from tweeting, the day after his re-election: ‘Believe me! I just had a pleasant phone conversation with Henrique Capriles! I invited him to national unity, to respect our differences…’
Yes, without the Venezuelan people who voted on Sunday to defend their revolution, for socialism, and against imperialism, recent history would be very different.
Slideshow photo: Wilfredor, reproduced under a CC license.