No questioning Chavez's victory
Last week's Venezuelan presidential elections were crucial for Latin America and the Caribbean. So I was pleased to be in the country as an official election observer.
The immediate practical consequence for Jamaica was the future of the PetroCaribe deal, which makes oil available to Jamaica on favourable terms. The agreement was initiated by Venezuela with the aim of building solidarity with other countries in the region. Eighteen Caribbean countries are members of the arrangement.
The Venezuelan Energy and Petroleum Minister and President of PDVSA Rafael Ramírez said of the deal that it seeks to cut out the middleman in such transactions. "We're not talking about discounts... We're talking about financial facilities, direct deliveries of products and infrastructure," he said. The second PetroCaribe summit was actually held in Jamaica. So, if the Venezuelan Opposition had won and revoked that deal, it would have had serious consequences for Jamaica's economy.
But a defeat for Chavez would have had more general consequences for the region. Chavez's first victory had been the beginning of a wave of democratically elected centre-left leaders in Latin America, including Lula in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Argentina's Christina Fernandez. Not for nothing is Chavez wildly popular across the region. Strip away the anti-American rhetoric and it is noteworthy that he has pursued serious policies around regional solidarity and implemented the most successful anti-poverty policies in Latin America.
Western critics of Chavez usually forget his substantial achievements for the poor of Venezuela. Deaths in childbirth have gone down from 20 in 1,000 to 13 in 1,000. Unemployment has dropped from 14.5 per cent to 7.6 per cent and, most important, the number of Venezuelans in extreme poverty has decreased from 23.4 per cent to 8.5 per cent. A defeat for Chavez would have been a disaster for the centre-left in the region and a victory for US neo-conservatives.
There is a lot of talk about elections in Venezuela being rigged. I can only say that I toured polling stations in the capital Caracas all day and saw no evidence of poll rigging. The Venezuelan Electoral Commission had flooded the country with independent election monitors like myself to make sure that the election process was not just free and fair, but seen to be so. If Chavez won again they wanted no excuse for a repeat of the 2002 Bush-inspired coup.
In fact, I concluded that their state-of-the-art voting system is far less susceptible to fraud and impersonation than the system in Britain. There are no postal votes, no proxy votes, you identify yourself with fingerprints and the electronic process offers you a receipt for your vote so that you know that it has been recorded properly and not got lost in the system.
Everything about the electronic system is double-checked by the Opposition parties, including the software. Along with other election observers, I spoke to representatives of the Opposition at every polling station we visited. They agreed the system was indeed free and fair.
The ballot papers also feature a full colour photograph of every candidate, so there is no question of voting for the wrong candidate by mistake. It is worth considering that if such a system had been in operation in the 2000 US presidential election in Florida, Al Gore would probably have won Florida and recent American political history might have been very different.
When the Venezuelan election result was finally declared, Caracas exploded with relief and delight. Fireworks were set off, cars and motorcycles raced up and down with their horns blaring, and even apartment dwellers used pots and pans to beat out victory on their window sills and metal grilles.
It is the big improvements in the life- chances of the poor that explain the undying loyalty of ordinary Venezuelans to Chavez. He is also non-white in a country which, although racially diverse, has traditionally been run by European elites. Poor Venezuelans identify passionately with Chavez.
The Chavez regime has its problems; including crime, corruption and the unremitting hostility of the United States. Perhaps the biggest problem is the health of Chavez himself. If his cancer were to return, there seems no succession plan.
But last Sunday in the balmy Venezuelan night air, as the city of Caracas erupted with joy around me, there could be no doubt that the poor of Venezuela saw a victory for Chavez as a victory for themselves.