Election Day in Caracas

In TV Caricuao, a community media station in the west of Caracas, government supporters are anxiously gathered around a small television, which beams out images of Chavista political figures and officials from the National Electoral Committee (CNE), all commenting on the progression of the country’s presidential election day. It is around 6pm and some of the activists are just getting back from a 60-strong motorcycle ride throughout the streets of Caricuao, wielding flags, shouting “Viva Chavez” and calling on local residents to go out and vote.

Now back in the community media’s headquarters, one of motorcyclists has an injured arm from opposition supporters throwing bricks at the riders from buildings above. Nonetheless others are pleased; even some of the military soldiers supervising the elections in the street had raised their fists in solidarity with them.

On the TV, the political figures continue to make elusive comments. Everyone in the room is watching intently to decipher some kind of sign, whether that be a facial expression, a smile that lasts just a nano-second too long or a look of confidence -anything which might betray how the government of Hugo Chavez is faring in these elections.

From the other room, one of the younger members of the team shouts that they are watching opposition channel Globovision, because “you can always tell what the situation is by looking at the face of your enemy,” before reporting that the private news channel presenters look as if they were at a morgue.

It is true that few people in the country had expected Chavez to lose, but following a financial crisis in 2009, the announcement that Chavez was suffering from cancer last year and daily attempts to destabilise his government from the opposition through its media and businesses networks, which hoard and speculate constantly, in the heat of election day there was a tangible anxiousness and a feeling that just about anything could happen.

Amongst the anxiety and nerves, people seemed to have been forced into some kind of quiet internal reflection, confronted with the reality of having to remember what Venezuela was like in the pre-Chavez years, from the 1989 Caracazo and the repression, to the privatisation of virtually all social services. Not to mention the marginalisation, classism and racism.

The thought of returning to this pre-Chavez Venezuela, no matter how remote the possibility, was ostensibly a sobering one. Just down the road at community radio Pérola, one of the presenters had ended up with a ruptured kidney from the beating he received during the witch hunt of chavistas that followed the opposition-instigated 2002 coup.

In that room, and everywhere else I went that day, from a voting centre in Antímano to the revolutionary barrio El 23 de enero, there was very much a feeling that everything was at stake, but also that something crucial and totally unique had been constructed, and that it was worth defending. From the material gains, such as the right to housing, education and health, to more subtle changes which can be found in the country’s experience with participatory democracy, the transformation of its culture and political practices. The construction of a Gramscian “new hegemony” in both physical, imagined, and non-physical spaces. From the hiphop and dance collectives which stage activities in the public spaces restored by the government, to the local airwaves that are now occupied by community media and their revolutionary words and songs. It was unthinkable that all that could be rolled back.

The waiting and thinking seemed almost unbearable, and maybe that’s why thousands of chavistas had already begun to make their way to the presidential palace, despite the fact that the results hadn’t even been announced. Maybe they preferred to pass their angst together in one of the revolution’s most sacred places, the “peoples’ balcony;” or maybe it was because they were able to sense something that I couldn’t. Whatever the reason though, at about 10 pm when I entered the metro, many, many chavistas were already on their way to the Miraflores Palace.

Sitting in front of me a woman, accompanied by two others, slowly reached inside her bag and pulled out a top with the words “Pa’lante Comandate,” (“Forward Comandante”) emblazoned across the front, – the sleeves were ripped and so was the neckline. She began to pull it over the t-shirt she was already wearing.

“I wear it like this cos I’m a lakra,” she told me laughing. “Lakra,” “delinquent” or a “blemish,” just one of the many words that has been given new meaning by the revolutionary cultural groups over the past few years, and is now used to refer to someone with style or attitude.

After the top came the cap and then the Chavez “Heart of my Homeland” earrings.

“You going the Miraflores Palace?” I asked, somewhat redundantly.

“Of course,” she said, “It’s already packed-out”.

Five minutes later and a sudden cry of jubilation went up from a group to my right. At first people were a little unsure of what the cheer was about, and looked at each other hesitantly; there was something that differentiated it from the cheers and songs of just a few moments ago. Then it dawned on everyone. Chavez had won, and another cheer, even bigger this time, rang out throughout the metro, giving way to a chorus of “Chavez isn’t going”. It was a bizarre way to find out the election results, a simple wordless cry, a strange type of non-linguistic communication, because it was true that no-one had actually uttered the words “Chavez has won” but nonetheless everyone seemed to know it.

All of a sudden, the atmosphere changed in the metro. Something in the tone of peoples’ voices; the same chants that they sang just a few minutes ago became electrified, their walk became a determined march get to the Miraflores Palace.

The road that links the centre of the city to the palace was quite simply mayhem. Thousands of people in Chavez t-shirts sang, danced, drank, talked to complete strangers, waved flags and dodged the hundreds of motorcyclists with their faces covered in red flags who weaved their way through the crowd.

“Look at us, we are the marginalised people, and we have won the elections for the third time,” cried a man to my right.

It was evident that every single person there felt the victory as deeply as if it were their own; “Chavez is the people,” as the saying goes. There was also a huge sense of being alive during a historic moment, of being right, smack bang in the epicentre of a revolution unfolding. Sure, it was a revolution that had been beaten around a bit, that had taken some blows, but it was still there in all its glory, in the sheer energy of the people on the street.

I imagine there will be plenty of time to analyse the results of the elections in the coming weeks, to talk about voter participation (a stunning 81%), the amount of votes that Chavez won by (over 1,600,000), and what all this means for the revolution. In fact, commentaries in the press have already begun to emerge, and many Venezuelan community groups met yesterday to do an initial analysis. Yet sometimes official figures can obscure the nuances of a country’s political and social equation. What is certain from the crowd outside Miraflores on Sunday, however, is that in Venezuela there are millions of people who believe in this process of revolutionary change, who not only voted for it, but who are also out on the streets because of it, ready to fight for it, no matter what the next six years may bring.

By Rachael Boothroyd

This piece originally appeared here on the UK’s Latin American Bureau http://lab.org.uk/election-day-in-caracass