Hugo Chavez, the leftist president of Venezuela, won the referendum here on Sunday with 58% of the vote. We spent the day hanging out in Caracas watching the long, long lines (most people spent 5 to 8 hours waiting to vote) in an awesome neighborhood called Sabana Grande. People had to vote either Si or No for the referendum pushed by the right wing opposition groups. A vote for ´No´ is a vote for Chavez and the continuation of his presidency. After the polls closed at midnight we left the ‘No’ camp we had been hanging out with, who had just sung Happy Birthday to Colleen, and took a cab to the presidential palace.
The situation there was AMAZING. Thousands and thousands of people in the streets, hanging off of trucks and from balconies, chanting and screaming and dancing. We milled around for about 3 hours till our group split up with 3 going back to our hotel and Colleen and I staying behind. We watched some of the bands perform and followed the news on the big screen TV while munching on popcorn. Keep in mind that at this point it is about 4am and the streets have not emptied. Old people and children alike passed the time singing, dancing, and eating. When the report came out that Chavez won the place erupted. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. People hugged us and I could see tears in people’s eyes. It was strange to be at a political event where the side we are pulling for actually wins. And even odder that it is the state we are cheering for! Chavez has been a thorn to the US since he was first elected in 1998 by de-privatizing the oil industry and pouring money into social programs for the country’s poorest people. When the rightwing attempted a coup a couple of years ago the US recognized it immediately, though they continue to not fully recognize Chavez who has been democratically elected 3 times.
After the announcement of the win the soldiers opened the gate to the presidential palace and the crowd swormed in. I look up and we ended up directly under the president’s balcony. After about 5 minutes of anticipation Chavez opened the doors and appeared on the balcony. Everyone went absolutely nuts. The chant of the pro-Chavez groups, ‘Uh! Ah! Chavez no se va!’ (which translates as Chavez wont go) was deafeningly loud. We stood and listened to his speech with the supporters even as rain started coming down around 5am. He mentioned the significance of the election of other left leaning presidents in Latin America and then said, ‘Fuera Bush de la casa blanca’ (Out Bush from the white house). Everyone around us looked at us and when we repeated it everyone cheered. Eventually we pushed through the crowd and avoided the kids on motorcycles and hailed a cab back to the hotel. This night was one of the most exciting moments of my life! Venezuela will forever be in my mind and I feel that much closer to what happens here. I am sure I will be back soon.