Hat tip to the Venezuelan Electoral Commission for demonstrating beyond doubt that their electronic voting system worked perfectly and in the process giving a lesson in democracy in action to many advanced societies. The CNE delivered a free, fair and completely transparent election. I was privileged to join politicians from a wide political spectrum including Latin American & Spanish Conservatives, internationally recognised academics, representatives of civic society and journalists from many countries across the world as an observer of an almost flawless election and to witness the proceedings at first hand.
In response to those antagonists who claim the election was rigged I would point them in the direction of none other than Juan Carlos Caldera, a deputy in the National Assembly, newspaper columnist and the senior representative of Henrique Capriles the defeated opposition candidate. Caldera has told visiting parliamentarians and foreign political commentators including myself that while he felt President Chavez was making excessive use of his incumbency for electoral advantage he had “absolutely no doubt that every ballot cast would be respected and honestly tallied to give an accurate result of the intention of the voters.”
To give some background to the uninitiated and at the risk of being labelled a political anorak, the history is that back in 1998 Venezuela passed a law to bring about the total automation of the voting process including the scrutiny and counting of votes in an effort to impose a free fair and transparent system under the auspices of the independent Venezuelan Electoral Commission, the CNE, which has its own budget, independent management board and a election supervisory force with its own personnel.
The automated system that we saw in action during these Presidential Election has been refined to incorporate fingerprinting for the first time. The new automated voting machines identify voters’ fingerprints, validates their identities and unlocks the voting machine. The electronic heart of the voting system that allowed the results to be declared accurately so soon after the close of the ballot is housed in an extremely ‘resilient’ earthquake proof building, protected by many layers of physical and electronic security in the centre of Caracas, which I and other international observers also visited.
I was present in the Venezuelan election centre in Caracas with the world’s press, representatives of the political parties and International Observers at the official announcement by CNE President by the redoubtable Tibisay Lucena Ramirez that Hugo Chavez had indeed won an historic fourth term. Although the tension was palpable, the emotion in the room was nothing compared to the celebrations we could hear outside as excited supporters of the PSUV celebrated with fireworks flags and dancing in the streets in a uniquely Latin American style.
In the hours leading up to the close of the polls it was clear there had been a huge turnout. In fact fourteen and a half million Venezuelans voted, or over 80% of the electorate. We visited some of the polling stations in downtown Caracas en route to the count which stayed open while everyone who was queuing cast their vote, even though the polls officially closed at 6pm local time. As I witnessed the unprecedented lines of poor people – some old and infirm – but all in good humour, waiting patiently to cast their vote in the heat of the midday sun, I felt quite emotional – but was in no doubt that Chavez, the undisputed champion of the poor and dispossessed, was going to win and win convincingly.
In the hours before the declaration the rumour mill was fuelled by speculation from bogus exit polls published on the internet in the western broadcast media and by false reports of tanks on the streets led to a suggestion – even by some UK media that Chavez – had in fact lost . Perhaps there were also concerns that Chavez was facing his toughest opponent yet in Henriques Capriles who enjoyed the support of big business as well as almost every national newspaper and commercial TV and radio station, and tacit U.S support to boot. He ran a well funded and slick PR campaign outspending Chavez by three to one had set nerves on edge.
The election result was not just historic for Venezuela or Latin America. Chavez won in 22 out of 24 states including Miranda where Capriles is Governor. Overall, Chavez won 54% of the vote compared to 44% for Capriles. Chavez was the first of a wave of democratically elected socially progressive centre-left leaders in Latin America. Defeat would have been a disaster for the centre-left in the region, a much coveted scalp for US neo-cons and the repercussions would have been felt across the globe by working people.
Western critics of Chavez some on the left who point to his alliances with states that have dubious records on human rights should look to the long list of despotic regimes that Britain and other western democracies have and continue to support and sell arms to. Many critics are all too willing to forget his substantial achievements for the poorest sections of society in Venezuela. Progressive social policies which address the ongoing needs of Venezuela’s poor majority have set the pace under Chavez. For example in the past year alone 250,000 new social houses have been built, state pensions made available for all and the minimum wage increased by 30%. Infant mortality has gone down dramatically from 20 in a 1000 to 13 in a 1000. Unemployment has gone down too from 14.5% to 7.6% on the back of economic growth of 6% that most governments would give their eye teeth for. Let us not forget that and that the number of Venezuelans in extreme poverty has dropped from 23.4% to 8.5%.
Chavez and his Bolivian socialist revolution have made possible huge advancements in the prospects of the poor that to some extent explains the undying loyalty of ordinary Venezuelans to Chavez. In a world ruled by elites where empathy is in short supply poorer Venezuelans identify passionately with Chavez and he with them. There is no denying that Venezuela has its challenges including violent crime, corruption and do not underestimate the destabilising effect of the the unremitting hostility of the United States
With the sound of celebratory fireworks still reverberating and illuminating the night sky of Caracas a day after the election it is the poor people of Venezuela that can savour Hugo Chavez ‘s victory as one that offers them hope of a better future for themselves their families and their country. Reflecting on the result of what is a deeply significant fourth term for Hugo Chavez and the enactment of his pledge to resist neoliberalism there is no doubt that the people of Venezuela have shown the way to a wider audience of left leaning politicians the world over that there is a popular alternative to austerity. I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
Grahame Morris is Labour MP for Easington and Chair of Labour Friends of Venezuela