Polls closed in Caracas, Venezuela at 1800 October 7. Months of anticipation came down to the following four hours as the National Electoral Commission (CNE) counted ballots. Current president Hugo Chavez won the election with over 7.4 million votes, some 54 percent of the vote. Opposition candidate and first runner up Henrique Capriles Radonski obtained some 6.1 million votes, over 44 percent.
Throughout the evening rumors abounded here in Caracas, and for some time it looked as though Capriles was in the lead by an irreversible count. But, in a country where Chavismo reigns, nothing is certain, certainly not results announced on this polemic evening.
Over the last few weeks I have heard hundreds of stories from people throughout Venezuela. Stories from parents who fear that their kids may be assaulted on their commute to work (the commute may be as short as one block). Stories from property owners who have no legal recourse against squatters. Stories of theft, of kidnappings, of police corruption. Stories so incredibly violent it is hard at times to listen, and hard to believe that people have stayed.
Yet they have stayed, and as I stood online near a polling center in Caracas I was struck by the gravity of the moment.
Venezuelans, who are famous for turning even protest marches into mobile parties with music and creative chants, were quiet today. Apart from a few incidents of voting irregularities and delays, Caracas was tranquil. Not until night fell did roving Chavista motorcycle gangs begin circulating the city, heightening tensions.
In a gracious speech, Capriles accepted the CNE’s pronouncement. Thanking members of his campaign, he marveled at the number of young people on his team. Many who had left the country returned not just to vote, but expected change.
In fact, Capriles’ greatest accomplishment may have been the conduct of the campaign. For the first time, the opposition managed to put forward a candidate who was taken seriously, recognized for his value as a candidate and leader, not just an anti-Chavez symbol.
“Mientras que hay vida, hay esperanza,” while there is life there is life there is hope, the candidate insisted. He lead by calm example, accepting the vote tally, saying that extremism within the country had already caused enough harm. The charismatic leader urged his followers not to feel defeated and to instead to continue working toward a better Venezuela.
Despite the negative, and to many, dubious outcome of the election, the 40-year old Governor of Miranda has transmitted courage to his followers. The election had unprecedented suffrage, 81 percent of the country’s 18.9 registered voters cast their ballots. Despite the electoral defeat, the opposition, more organized, more unified and better coordinated than ever, has come out ahead.