Facing a media offensive inside and outside his country, a unified and vigorous opposition, and a cancer diagnosis, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on October 7 overwhelmingly defeated Henrique Capriles, presidential candidate of the right-wing Roundtable of Democratic Unity Coalition. Chavez will continue as Venezuela's president through 2019.
National Electoral Council head Tibisay Lucena announced the results at 10 p.m. on Election Day, even though some polls were still open to accommodate citizens waiting to vote. She complimented voters for their civility. Conceding defeat, Capriles told supporters that "to know how to win, you need to know how to lose." Together with flawless conduct of the election, Capriles' public concession disappointed many of Chavez's enemies, including those in the United States, who were quite prepared to use election cheating and opposition intransigence as fuel for continuing the fight.
With 97 percent of the votes counted, Chavez secured 8.062.056 votes (55.14 percent), while Capriles got 6.468.450 votes (44.24 percent). Chavez prevailed in 21 states and the Capital District, losing only in Mérida and Táchira states. Voter abstention, having fallen from 46.3 percent in the 2000 presidential to 26.3 percent in 2006, was 19.1 percent. Chavez has won four presidential elections, three of them under Venezuela's 1999 Constitution; he also decisively turned back a recall vote in 2004.
The victory announcement triggered celebrations in Venezuelan cities. Videos show red-shirted people of all ages waving banners and dancing in the streets. Early on October 8, from Caracas' Miraflores Palace, Chavez addressed thousands of celebrators. "Venezuela will never again go back to neo-liberalism and will keep on moving toward democratic socialism of the 21st century," he told them. And: "No imperialist force, no matter how big, can ever stand up against the people of Simon Bolivar ... Today, Latin America won, together with the people of Venezuela." He congratulated opposition leaders, "inviting them to dialogue, discussion, and working together."
Since then analyses flooding the Internet have speculated on why Chavez won and what Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution means. There is undoubted authenticity, however, in reflections a North American political activist emailed at 5 a.m. on October 8 to friends and supporters. Having lived in Latin America for three decades, in rural Venezuela for over 20 years, she was responding to North American friends "wondering why Chavez was going to lose, die, or steal the elections, or all of the above."
"How about, for a start," she writes, "free health care, and right in your local community?" She recounts her return to Venezuela recently from the United States. She was sick and a friend took her to "the local government health post. As I stumbled in, the waters parted and soon I was on a gurney with young Cuban and Venezuelan doctors patiently asking me many questions and examining me. [I was] having a reaction to pain medication ... I was sent home with new meds and a smile, never interchanging a single ID or form of any payment."
Her friend was hospitalized soon afterwards: "We arrived at a four-story brand new building in the heart of Petare, one of the most populous and poorest sectors of the country." Two days later the friend went home following an appendectomy and incidental hernia repair. "Total bill: $0!"
But, she writes, "If free health care isn't enough reason to explain Venezuela's election results, maybe you can look to the faces of the young people who were jumping up and down last night in front of the presidential palace." She recalled an interchange between North American and local students. She realized difficulties she had in translating "student loans" for the young Venezuelans "wasn't a question of translation, but of opposing realities."
Among young people attending the cultural center she established "all [of those] between ages 17-20, and all hailing from these barrios ... were studying at the university. Tuition was free and some even had scholarships to cover food and transportation. Student loans?"
Her neighbor Erika, mother of six, "grew up having to pick coffee instead of going to school. Three years ago she got her grade school degree from the mission school, and is now well on her way to a high school degree. She is thinking of what to study at the university level, maybe social work. She often repeats to me: "'Comadre, notice how Chavez always says, WE the poor. He is one of us.'"
Commenting on Chavez' appearance on the Miraflores balcony, the email correspondent reports that, "As Chavez held up [Bolivar's'] sword, he and the crowd swayed as they spoke and cheered that real independence was finally coming to Latin America, a continent increasingly configuring itself as one: UNASUR, ALBA, CELAC, all variations of Bolivar's dream." These are all organizations in which Venezuela is an active participant and which are working toward Latin American economic integration and freedom from U.S. domination. Independence was coming "from a colonizer that took over no sooner than Spaniards had departed: my country [the U.S.]."
Photo: Bernardo Londoy/Flickr