The impromptu motorcade set off as soon as news of Hugo Chavez’s crushing election victory on Sunday, October 7th reached the town of Sabaneta, Venezuela, the president’s hometown. Hundreds of motorbikes seating two, three even four people, scores of pickup trucks packed beyond capacity and cars with men, women and children hanging from the windows began lapping the town, accompanied by flags, banners and a barrage of horns and cries of “Viva Chavez!”
Chavez’s victory meant more to his supporters in Sabaneta than a fourth electoral triumph and six more years of the Bolivarian revolution. Sabaneta is where it all began. Sabaneta is Chavez’s town.
A small town of 40,000 people in the state of Barinas in western Venezuela, Sabaneta today bears little resemblance to the ramshackle huts and grinding poverty familiar to Hugo Chavez from his childhood. When he staged a campaign rally in the town the week before the election, he mixed his usual thumping campaign rhetoric with reminiscing about his past, pointing out how the town had changed. “I salute my dear town. I salute this nest of my life,” he told the crowd.
According to its residents, the town’s well-swept streets, lined with businesses and cars and motorbikes, also bears little resemblance to the dirt roads and open sewers of Sabaneta 14 years ago, when Chavez first swept to power on the back of an unprecedented wave of popular support.
Earlier in the day, voting had been a relaxed affair, free of the tension that has surrounded this polarized election. Throughout the day, the shuffling queues were attended by red shirted officials in polling stations guarded by heavily armed but bored soldiers.
Support for Chavez was open and vocal among the crowds. Supporters of his opponent, Henrique Capriles, were less forthcoming. “It’s a secret ballot, isn’t it?” huffed one stall owner when asked which way he voted. His integrator smiled knowingly.
Chavez’s hometown supporters were unwavering in their backing of the president. “He’s the only president who cares about the poor,” said Taco Cauro, gesticulating towards the corner of the plaza where he used to have to pump water.
“Like [Simon] Bolivar said, man’s most important necessities are morale and light,” said Aida Perez, who grew up one of 12 children in a wooden shack. “This government is giving us morale by making Venezuela a country that is respected in the world - it is now an independent country - and light because now we have schools and universities.”
“He’s just too good,” was the simple explanation of Yovianna Catañera, a young mother who moved to Sabaneta as a child when her family left their home in the north in search of work.
“[When] my mother came here the money didn’t stretch far enough to buy food,” she said. “Now my children, say to me ‘I don’t want to eat this, I want to eat such a thing.’
However, while Sabaneta and the state of Barinas is a Chavez stronghold, even here Capriles managed to garner significant support. “Capriles is more prepared, he is more of a leader,” said Franc, a small business owner who did not want to give his last name. Franc estimated support for Capriles in Sabaneta to be reaching 50%, a claim that was met with laughter and derision from nearby Chavistas, who he dismissed with the wave of an arm.
Sunday’s vote was the first time Franc has voted against Chavez. He said while Chavez brought in welcome reforms at the start of his presidency be believes his rule is tainted with creeping authoritarianism, alliances with unsavory foreign governments and, most of all, rampant corruption and nepotism. “Now, the only ones who have the right to sit at the table are his family,” he said.
The issue of corruption was acknowledged by Chavez’s supporters but most dismissed it as an inevitable part of politics anywhere in the world. “It’s not Chavez’s fault that some people disgraced themselves,” said Perez. “But the majority of people around Chavez are good men, honest men, patriotic men, men of the people.
Others were not so forgiving. “He needs to get rid of the rats that are around him,” said one man, who did not give his name.
Among the Chavez supporters, views on Capriles were varied. “Capriles is the candidate of the oligarchy, of capitalism, of the bourgeoisie, and we reject him completely,” said Aider Perez, echoing the fiery rhetoric Chavez has employed throughout his campaign.
“If Capriles won – which is not going to happen – the benefits that the president has given to the people are going to be eliminated, because they are not going to let the people carry on advancing,” he added.
Taco Cauro was more philosophical. “Everyone has the right to choose to want to be president, we are a completely democratic country,” he said. “If there is no opposition here there is no democracy, there has to be an opposition and they have to be against [the government].”
For others, who Capriles is and what he stands for did not matter; only that he was standing against Chavez. “There has to be an opposition,” said Yovianna Catañera. “But I don’t really know him.”
The voting process in Venezuela has come under intense scrutiny from the Western media. For people in Sabaneta, though, it was a source of intense pride. “In Venezuela we have a true democratic process, it is the best in the world,” said one polling official, who said he was not allowed to give his name.
Although his job was to ensure a fair election, he left little doubt as to where his loyalties lay. He accused the opposition of wanting to sabotage the vote by any means possible, including cutting off the electricity, and placed the blame with Miami based Venezuelan ex-pats.
Speculation that Chavez and his supporters would refuse to relinquish power if the president faced defeat was dismissed – even by his opponents. “They will have to accept the result, it’s a democracy here,” said Franc. However, he accused government officials of using threats to guarantee the vote. “There are people here that have to vote for Chavez – if they don’t they’ll throw them out of their jobs,” he said.
For his supporters, the claims Chavez would not accept defeat are another example of media demonization of Chavez. “We are a democratic people here – this is the message that I want to send to the world, that us Venezuelans are participative and democratic,” said Perez. “It is not like they say in the international press – that Chavez is a dictator.”
Instead, Perez was concerned that Capriles would not accept the legitimacy of the vote. “What worries us is that he won’t recognize the result – if that happens the people are going to go to the streets to defend President Chavez’s victory.”
Perez also shot a warning to the U.S. government not to interfere following Chavez’s victory. “I want to give this message to the U.S. government,” he said. “Forget it because the people of América have woken up. Forget it because if we have to defend our sovereignty and independence with our lives we are going to do it.”
“The US is not going to put a foot in Venezuela again,” he added. “It would be a mistake to try and intervene because we are ready ... we are ready for a war.”
After the polls closed, small crowds began to congregate in Sabaneta’s Plaza Bolivar. There was no room for doubt among them. “The euphoria and the adrenaline is invading our bodies,” said Angel Gallado, who was passing around a jug of bright yellow brew with friends. “We feel like winners, the Venezuelan people have just won.”
“Chavez is the people and the people are Chavez,” he added. “Chavez doesn’t win, the people win ... We don’t see him as an angel, we see him as our brother, as our friend.”
By the time his optimism was confirmed, he had been joined in the plaza by a whooping throng. “No one can take Chavez from us – only God” shouted one man. “He will reign for 5,000 years,” laughed another.
“The youth is with Chavez,” cried a group in red Chavista Youth T-shirts. “We love him so much.”
Not everyone felt the same. “The people are so stupid,” muttered one woman angrily, on the verge of tears. “They just give them money and a flag to wave.” She jumped in a car and left the party, fearful for Venezuela’s future.
For Aida Perez and Sabaneta’s other Chavistas there was never any real doubt over whether the town’s most famous son would win once again. “Capriles is not going to win because in this country there are more poor people than rich people,” he said before the results, “because that is how they treated us, that is how they left us – in misery; the Republic was left in misery, sweat and tears.”
Whatever legacy Chavez leaves Venezuela when his rule finally comes to an end, in Sabaneta, at least, he will not be remembered for misery, sweat or tears. Most of those out on the streets on Sunday night used a different word: pride.
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com