This will be the first of several articles on the Venezuelan election as I saw it as an international observer.
At the Caracas Airport as soon as I got off the plane on Wednesday, November 29, 2006, a blond, well-dressed woman, very much out of breath, harried, and clearly in a state of high anxiety, approached me.
"Are you one of the international observers?" she asked. She had picked me out of a group, meeting me that had a sign from the Venezuelan elections commission. When I said "yes, I am," she said, "It's wonderful you are here. I was so frightened. I thought there would be a shooting at the airport and I was afraid we would not land safely. Watch the election closely. They stole the 2004 referendum and if they don't win this time, there will be a coup. We are voting now to make sure there is not another thirty years of Chavez."
Thursday, November 30th was quiet until we went, in the afternoon, to the center of Caracas.
The several blocks circling the presidential palace, the place where the failed 2002 coup against Chavez had taken place, had been surrounded and blocked off by government troops. The scene was chaotic. The young, nervous army looking at the tops of buildings for snipers, waiting for something to happen, fire engines, whistles full blast, driving up on the sidewalks to get past the jammed streets, while military and police motorcycle drove at breakneck speed through miles of traffic jams.
Chavez claimed to have learned of a plot attempt on him that stopped. That day he went on television and "produced evidence" that showed, he said, that a right-wing group attempt to kill his opponent, and then blame it on Chavez, had also been thwarted.
I stayed in Caracas for a few days and the drove along west the northern coast to Sanare, a town of 50,000 people, watching them vote on Sunday, December 3. Polls opened at 6 with long lines, some people having been there since 3 pm. Midday the opposition claimed the voting was a fraud and that in the very area I was in, machines in Anti-Chavusta areas were breaking down. I went to some the exact places the opposition said the machines were not working and found them working in fine order with long lines.
The people working the polls, chosen through a lottery, were fastidiously carrying out their duties, under the watchful eyes of representatives of both parties. At day's end I had seen a sufficient sample of the polling places to conclude there were no irregularities.
I found a people committed to the idea of a democracy, not a Cuban-styled Revolution, with a strong man. While respecting the gains of the Cuban Revolution, the majority of the country made it clear, by the actions of the past years and by the Sunday vote, that they wanted a participatory democratic revolution.
Ming Alterman, a Latin American scholar, who was last here in 1992, said, "The change in the country is astonishing; the majority of the people feel they are fashioning their own type of democracy. The enthusiasm is palpable the accomplishment of the government are apparent. While some say he should have moved slower, others say he should have moved faster."
We shall see.