CARACAS, Venezuela - When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez trounced his U.S.-backed opponent to win a second six-year term on Dec. 3, we were there.
The alarm went off at 2:45 a.m. It was election day, and it was time to head to the polls. We were 16 labor and peace activists from the United States, including a six-member delegation from the Communist Party USA, who were among the hundreds of official and unofficial international observers of Venezuela's presidential election. Tim Yeager from Illinois and I had volunteered for the early shift.
We arrived at the voting station at 3 a.m. with Roraima Segura, a young mother of two who was assisting our delegation. She had wanted to ensure she'd be near the front when the polls opened at 7, and she was - but several hundred people were already in front of her. Some had begun their wait at 9 p.m. the previous evening, 11 hours before the polls opened.
By the time we left at 5 a.m., well over a thousand people were already in line. Why did they arrive so early? Alirio Jose Perez, directly in front of Segura, said it was because under Chavez a "democratization of Venezuelan life, along with mass education and health campaigns, has given people a stake in their country."
As we talked, a flatbed truck full of youthful members of the Communist Party of Venezuela, with their party flags flying, drove by. Their calls for the election of Chavez were met with spontaneous cheers from the crowd. The Communist Party had its own line on the ballot with Chavez as its presidential candidate. We later learned that in Caracas the CPV was the third largest vote-getter, and in the nation it was fourth. Chavez's name appeared on the ballot of at least 23 parties.
The polling station where we were, near the Bellas Artes Metro station, is one of the largest polling places in the city. Altogether, it was expected that over 12,000 people would vote there.
"We are at a special point in the history of Venezuela," said Daniel Leonard, a bank worker who was about 100th in line. "This election will change the history of Venezuela and all of Latin America. The missions [social service agencies initiated by the Bolivarian government that work to meet people's needs such as education and health care] benefit all of the people and they have changed people's thinking," Leonard said. He added, "The oil wealth of the country is now being used for the people."
Leonard predicted a big margin of victory for Chavez. He observed that people think the good intentions of Simon Bolivar in Venezuela and George Washington in the U.S. were lost by presidents who came after them, and that in Venezuela they are returning to Bolivar's concept of putting the interests of the poor before the rich oligarchy.
As we neared the front of the line, we met Daniel Televera Montero, a restaurant worker, who had arrived shortly after 9 p.m. the night before. Televera comes from Zulia, the state where Manuel Rosales, Chavez's opponent, had been governor until he stepped down to run for president. Although his parents still live in Zulia, Televera said his "entire family is voting for Chavez."
At the front of the line and showing great enthusiasm - though they had already been standing for many hours - were a group of young women. As we talked, a large convoy of cars and pick-up trucks went by with people clapping and singing for Chavez. The voters responded with their own set of cheers.
"The people today are very happy," said Fina Garcia, who works in the office of Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal. She told us she had participated in many peace demonstrations against the Iraq war in Caracas. "I did not give birth to a son so he can die in war," she said. Garcia said the Venezuelan people love the people of the U.S. and understand that a majority opposes the policies of President Bush.
Our delegation spent the day studying the mechanics of democracy in Venezuela. We familiarized ourselves with every point of their electoral process. As evening came, the polls closed one by one as the lined-up voters completed their task.
We rejoined Roraima Segura and her family as they settled around the television to watch the results. As soon as the election commission announced Chavez's landslide victory, 61 percent to 38 percent, the day's general merriment reached an ecstatic climax. From Segura's window, we watched fireworks going off all over town and listened to the horns honking and the whistles of celebrants on the rainy streets below.
The discipline of the Venezuelan people in exercising their hard-won voting rights is more than impressive, and their enthusiasm is irresistible. Amid bugle calls and rumba music, the Bolivarian Revolution is advancing steadily.
John Rummel is the district organizer of the Michigan state Communist Party and represented the CPUSA in Venezuela.