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Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004


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Voters turned out in record numbers to vote in Venezuela's first-ever presidential recall referendum.
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A majority of Venezuelans describe their country as having honest elections, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
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Many Latin American countries, including Cuba, greeted Chavez's recent victory as a historical triumph for democracy in the region.
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Is Hugo Chavez's referendum win good or bad for Venezuela?
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Untitled Document

Dispatches From a Small Planet: Election 2004

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By the People - Election 2004 PBS

VENEZUELA: Hugo Chavez, Clutch Hitter
Ruth Morris

FRONTLINE/World reporter Ruth Morris.
By Ruth Morris
August 24, 2004

Bottom of the Ninth

President Hugo Chavez strode into the press conference wearing a business suit and tie. Thickset and unabashed, he grinned broadly at the crush of reporters assembled before him. There were journalists from around the world, pens poised, ready to take down his last words before an extraordinary recall vote that could very well oust him.


FRONTLINE/World's "A Nation on Edge" FRONTLINE/World correspondent and New York Times reporter Juan Forero travels to Venezuela in this television segment to examine Hugo Chavez's staying power. Also available in streaming video online.

FRONTLINE/World Fellows: "A Critical Turning Point" Venezuelan journalist Angel Gonzales journeys back to his home country in this special Web report.

But if Chavez was worried, he didn't show it. He oozed confidence and charm. "Thank you very much," he said in thickly accented English, smiling to his international audience. Chavez doesn't really speak English, but he does have a strong command of baseball terminology, which he injected into his comments that day -- as he often does during marathon speeches. And now it was the bottom of the ninth, and half the country expected Chavez to strike out.

I'd come to Venezuela to try to understand how this affable ex-paratrooper had grown into the most polemical leader in the Western Hemisphere, inspiring seething hatred in his opponents and jealous devotion in his followers. Since Chavez was re-elected in 2000, Venezuela has split into two feuding camps: his poverty-stricken supporters, living in roughshod housing, and his well-heeled detractors, living in the comfortable high-rises built during Venezuela's earlier oil booms. Chavez sympathizers might have a glass of water thrown at them in an elegant café; an opposition leader wouldn't dream of setting foot in one of the slums that climb the hills surrounding Caracas.

People waiting in line to vote

Venezuelans read the newspaper while lining up to vote in the national referendum in Caracas, Venezuela, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004. (AP/Wide World Photos)
The August 15 vote that awaited Chavez had been billed as the last act, the culmination of a fervent campaign to drive him from office. To force the recall referendum, Chavez opponents had collected 2.4 million signatures. The referendum was to bring a record number of people to the polls, and with the severe bottlenecking at voting stations, many Venezuelans would stand in line under a scorching sun for 11 or 12 hours, determined to cast their ballot.

So what was it about Chavez that motivated so many people to weigh in on his presidency even if it meant standing in lines that trailed off for nearly a mile? Why did they feel so strongly about him? And once the votes were tallied, would the election help mend the country's deep rift?

People standing in front of Bolivar wall

The Simon Bolivar Plaza, depicting a quote from Simon Bolivar, a 19th century revolutionary whose dreams of an independent and united South America Hugo Chavez hopes to fulfill.
Waiters passed black coffee to journalists, and Chavez began to play ball. During the next three-and-a-half hours -- and that's short for a Chavez address -- he delved into his plans to flood poor barrios with doctors and food banks, then railed against U.S. free trade policies, which he branded as "imperialism." He promoted his "Bolivarian" revolution, named after the region's early 19th-century independence hero, Simón Bolívar, and called for a united bloc of Latin American countries to counter what he labels "the colossus from the north."

Later, in response to a question about CIA involvement in Venezuela, Chavez rambled off track. The CIA sees itself as James Bond, he said, insisting that the dashing, fictional spook had suffered a slump in popularity lately. That reminded Chavez that Tarzan and Dracula were having image problems, too, which in turn reminded him of Batman and Robin. He paused to reflect on Christopher Reeve's riding accident and how, in Reeve's absence, there could never be another Superman.

The point, I think, was that the CIA is in demise, but the only part most of us in the press clearly understood was that the president thinks Sean Connery is the best Bond.

President Hugo Chavez

Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, speaks with reporters during a press conference in April 2003.
This was vintage Chavez: hard-hitting leftist rhetoric and folksy asides. But even if it's easy to see why his detractors call Chavez a crackpot, it's hard to dismiss him. Chavez doesn't blink. He has faced off against a wealthy and rowdy opposition movement during two-and-a-half years of sporadic street clashes and crippling strikes. He answered a walkout at the state-run oil company by firing 18,000 dissenting workers. In April 2002, he even bounced back from a 48-hour coup when his supporters flooded the streets and demanded his return. And he's responded to U.S. criticism with verbal blows to the gut. He once called President George W. Bush an imbecile, and he regularly refers to political opponents as "the squalid ones" and a "rancid" elite.

"The government of George Bush will be defeated on Sunday," Chavez boomed during the press conference. "It's not a question of whether Chavez goes or stays. It's a question of whether Venezuela remains sovereign or goes back to being an American colony."

Chavez often accuses Washington of backing his political enemies, and in fact, the U.S. government's National Endowment for Democracy has funneled $1 million in the last year to groups linked to the opposition. Washington also publicly welcomed the 2002 coup that briefly unseated Chavez, saying he'd gotten what he deserved. But Chavez may get more political mileage out of such apparent favoritism of the opposition than the opposition does, since it fits perfectly into his incendiary discourse, in which he casts himself as the underdog fighting against a greedy, intervening world power and against Venezuela's wealthy "oligarchs."

Oil Refinery

An oil refinery run by Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, Venezuela's state-run oil company. Chavez has used oil revenues, including $1.7 billion this year, to finance social programs for the poor.
The Power of Oil

Analysts say the only reason Chavez can get away with such inflammatory talk is that he's sitting on the world's largest proved oil reserve outside the Middle East. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and provides 13 percent of the oil imported by the United States. With oil prices climbing to 21-year highs in the run-up to the referendum on Chavez's rule, Washington was careful not to incite him.

Oil has also paved the way for the Bolivarian revolution. Chavez has siphoned $1.7 billion dollars from the hulking, state-run Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA as it is known worldwide, to pay for literacy programs, expanded educational programs, mobile clinics and subsidized markets for the country's poor, who make up more than 60 percent of the population. Cuba, meanwhile, has shipped thousands of medics to the country's hardscrabble barrios in return for cut-rate Venezuelan crude. As oil analyst Lawrence Goldstein, president of the New York-based Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, put it, "Oil has allowed Chavez to be all things to all people."

Escalators in a shopping mall

An upscale mall in Caracas, one of the many signs of the divide between rich and poor.
Oil has also fueled a gaping class divide. Throw in the combative Chavez, and you have a starkly polarized nation. During the run-up to the referendum, the air was thick with the tension between the "yes" and the "no" votes. For example, hiking up Avila Mountain, which looms over Caracas, the day before the vote, I joked with a couple of journalist friends that the opposition had failed to produce any fresh faces to counter Chavez's populist appeal. Just months before, Chavez's foes had turned out an 83-year-old former communist to make stump speeches and improve the opposition's battered image. A woman hiking past us balked.

"It must be very entertaining for you," she scolded, in perfect English, "to come here and make fun of something that has cost people years of hard work." She defiantly predicted her side would oust Chavez in the recall.

Farther up the mountain, we stopped to ask directions. A man in a baggy tracksuit asked us where we were from, then blurted out that he would be voting for Chavez because he was poor and felt that Chavez wanted to help him.

President Hugo Chavez votes

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez registers his thumbprint to prevent multiple voting in the recall vote against his rule in Caracas, Venezuela Sunday Aug. 15, 2004. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Election Day

The next day we fanned out into the sunny streets of Caracas. At the first voting station I visited, a fragile 87-year-old woman named Carmen Cardona linked her arm around mine and asked me to walk her to the registration desk. The National Electoral Council had invented what it considered to be a fraud-proof voting system that included electronic voting machines and two fingerprint checks, one of them digital. But when Cardona pushed her thumb onto the digital pad her fingerprint was too sketchy to register.

"Come, little grandmother," a volunteer said, pressing Cardona's fingers onto the pad again and again. "You have a thin fingerprint. You've worked too much in life."

In the end it took a good 10 minutes for Cardona to get past this single stage. Within hours, the local press was abuzz with the news that people were stalled at fingerprint scans across the country, and the voting lines were growing fast.

But that didn't deter Grisel Marin, the 43-year-old editor of a local culture magazine, who by midmorning had been standing in line for hours but had barely taken 10 steps forward. Marin told me she considered Chavez a member of her family, and she credited him with sharing Venezuela's great oil wealth with the working class. Also, in a city that hosts many a Subway sandwich shop and a scattering of Miami-style malls, she said Chavez was protecting Venezuelans from the corrosive effects of U.S. culture.

"We're not going to turn in our arepa for a McDonald's hamburger," she said, referring to the popular corn-meal tortilla. Asked what she thought of the opposition, she answered, "They come [to] the street [to demonstrate] with manicured nails and necklaces and hairdos. They think we're lepers."

Across town, Augusto Rendon, 51, who lost his job as human resources manager at PDVSA when Chavez purged the company of dissenters, was equally resolute. Wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, he insisted Chavez was the worst president Venezuela had ever had.

"We'll put up with whatever it takes to get rid of this man today," he said, having waited six hours in line already. He switched to English for emphasis: "Whatever it takes."

"He says he's going to end poverty, and people are digging through the trash looking for something to eat," Rendon's wife, Giobanna, added. "It's lie after lie. He's a dictator."

Shanty town outside Caracas

One of the many shanty towns surrounding Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Approximately 60 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty.
Poverty and crime have, in fact, climbed since Chavez took office, although the government blames protracted opposition strikes for draining the economy and fanning discontent. His detractors, for their part, say Chavez is bypassing fiscal controls with his latest wave of social programs. The cheap markets and Cuban medics represent quick fixes, they say. They don't address institutional problems.

I ran into this in the vast Catia district of western Caracas, where residents drive clunky old cars and where the remains of battered kites hang from criss-crossed telephone wires. A woman there told me she'd taken her son to see a Cuban doctor just down the street, and she was thrilled to have such easy access to a health professional. But two minutes later she showed me the booklet of lottery tickets she was selling to help raise money for medicine for her nephew, a cancer patient. "Visiting a hospital is an unpleasant experience," she said.

Back at the polling booths, the lines were still growing. Voters brought out deck chairs and dominoes and resigned themselves to a wait that would stretch late into the night. Election officials extended polling hours twice, and it wasn't until the early hours of the morning that they announced the results. After a record turnout, an overwhelming 59 percent of voters had opted to keep the president in office until his term expired in 2007; 41 percent had voted to unseat him. Chavez had hit a home run.

Or had he?

Chavez supporters

Supporters hold up a portrait of Hugo Chavez during a rally in April 2003.
Grand Slam

Just before dawn, Chavez appeared on the balcony of the Miraflores Palace, above the heads of ecstatic supporters, and trumpeted his victory. "The Venezuelan people have spoken, and the voice of the people is the voice of God!" he thundered. But within hours the opposition was crying foul and contesting the outcome. Later in the day, pro-Chavez gunmen shot randomly at a crowd of opposition supporters, killing one and injuring several others.

Former President Jimmy Carter, leading a team of international observers, said it was the largest voter turnout he'd ever seen and endorsed the results based on a highly accurate "quick count" conducted by the Atlanta-based Carter Center and the Organization of American States. Used in elections worldwide, the quick count tallied ballots at select polling sites and confirmed what a tamper-proof electronic voting system had concluded: that Chavez had swept away his opponents yet again, this time in a landslide electoral triumph.

But in this polarized country, neither side is willing to give an inch. And to Chavez's adversaries, Carter was now the enemy. As the Nobel Prize winner entered an elegant Italian restaurant in front of my hotel the next day, drivers who spotted him honked their horns irately. A woman on the sidewalk cupped her hands around her mouth and screeched, "Lies! Lies!"

The opposition was stunned by its defeat and refused to relinquish even the most slender hope of recovery. Opposition leaders continued to contest the results and simultaneously refused to participate in an audit of the outcome. United for so long by their hatred of Chavez, they fell into disarray.

Young Venezuelan girl

A young girl holds up a banner during a rally in support of Chavez, April 2003.
Some 8.5 million of Venezuela's 14 million registered voters had come out to cast their ballot in the referendum, waiting in line for hour upon hour, in a show of democratic valor that impressed even veteran election observers. But the country was still split, and the jury was still out on whether Chavez would extend a healing hand toward his political enemies. Analyst Ana Maria Sanjuan of the Central University of Venezuela noted that Chavez had left his military uniform -- a symbol of his defiant ways -- in the closet lately and that he had been meeting repeatedly with business leaders in a show of political pragmatism. She was hopeful that he would now build bridges to the opposition.

I wondered if Venezuelans were willing to extend a hand to their brothers, and I put the question to Spic Limo, a 30-year-old mining engineer, as he waited to vote late Sunday night. "It will take years and years for this to heal," he said, as he shuffled forward in the dark.

For the past six years, Ruth Morris has been based in Bogota, covering the conflict in Colombia for the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and the BBC, as well as reporting on other countries in the region, including Venezuela. Next month she starts work at the Sun-Sentinel in Florida as an immigration reporter.

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Links Relevant to This Article

The National Endowment for Democracy
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a private nonprofit organization formed in 1983, receives grants from Congress -- including $80 million this year -- to help fund democratic institutions around the world. Although the NED claims to be nonpartisan, critics accuse it of funding efforts to destabilize foreign governments that are opposed to Washington.

The Carter Center
The Carter Center, a nonprofit human rights organization formed in 1982 by former President Jimmy Carter, has monitored elections in more than 50 countries.

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