Editor's note: Rachel Jones is CityBeat's former calendar editor. She now lives in Caracas, Venezuela, and edits the national section of the English-language Daily Journal. It's pouring rain, and about 30 people are dancing beneath a bus shelter.
On any other day it would be an odd location for a celebration. But tonight is different. It's Sunday, Dec. 3, in Caracas, Venezuela, and the polls have just closed. Supporters of President Hugo Chávez-Chavistas-have taken over the main square in Altamira, a relatively affluent suburb east of the city center and home to many people who are opposed to the Chávez regime.
"Ooh, ah, Chávez will not go!" the crowd shouts. A woman wearing a red T-shirt-the Chavistas' trademark color-waves a plastic Chávez doll. Young men pull up by the busload, blocking traffic and running around the vehicles. Loud fireworks explode overhead and streak through the night.
A young girl, wide-eyed beneath a red bandana, watches the chaos from her father's shoulders. Not long ago, such a sight in Caracas would have been unheard of. But much has changed in her short lifetime.
Since Chávez came into power in 1998, Venezuela has become increasingly polarized along class lines. His populist rhetoric, social programs and tendency to rail against the United States has made Chávez a hero of the poor majority. But those who oppose the president say his foreign policy is isolating the country from the rest of the world, his administration is corrupt and the money he dishes out to other nations could be better spent at home.
The opposition-often fragmented in the past-is united around Manuel Rosales, governor of the oil-rich Zulia state. But tonight, his supporters-who are often clad in blue-are at home, waiting for the results. Opinion polls have indicated that Chávez will win in a landslide, making him the sixth leftist president to be elected in Latin America this year.
Raised by two teachers in the town of Sabaneta, in Barinas State, Chávez, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the military, first became a blip on the national radar when he led an attempted coup against the government of Carlos Andrés Perez in 1992. The coup failed, but Chávez won hearts across the nation in a televised address.
After serving two years in prison, Chávez was pardoned by President Rafael Caldera in 1994. He ran for president four years later, winning an upset victory with 56-percent of the vote.
Chávez campaigned on a leftist "Bolivarian" doctrine, one that has continued to guarantee his support among Venezuela's poor and helped him survive another election in 2000, an attempted coup in 2002 and a recall referendum in 2004.
And Chávez, who can serve legally as president only until 2012, has said that he plans to hold a referendum to eliminate term limits. Stalls lining the streets in Caracas sell pins that read "Chávez, until 2030."
Chávez openly opposes Washington's economic interests in Latin America, despite the fact that Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil producer, relies heavily on the U.S. as a client. And, over the years, he has encouraged cooperation between leftist leaders throughout the continent. In the last year, left-leaning leaders have been elected in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and-just last month-Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Chávez has been accused of meddling in the politics of other Latin American countries. Still, he has succeeded in uniting many to undermine U.S. influence in the region. He has pursued bilateral trade agreements and recently embarked on a Latin American tour to discuss joint energy deals.
The Bush administration sees Chávez as a destabilizing leader in an important oil-producing country, while Chávez has repeatedly called Bush "the devil"-most famously on the floor of the United Nations while vying for a Security Council seat.
But Chávez also has critics at home. One of the opposition's loudest complaints is that the president-who paid off more than $2 billion worth of Argentina's debt to the International Monetary Fund-gives other Latin American nations overly generous handouts.
His many followers, however, believe in what Chávez terms "21st-century socialism."
At a rally a week before the Venezuelan election, hundreds of thousands of Chávez supporters waved flags and banged inflatable noise sticks in Caracas' central Plaza Bolivar.
"I don't need a comfortable life," said Chávez supporter Victor Saúne, 46, from Lima, Peru, who'd been sleeping in the square. "I have to help the revolution. It's very important for Latin America.
"Chávez will be re-elected, and Venezuela will become a very important country," Saúne predicted, shouldering a signpost.
"I believe that if he knew about my situation, he would help me."
Indeed, Chávez's "missions" have done much to benefit the lower classes; the social programs provide access to free medical and dental care, subsidized food and education.
According to a pre-election AP-Ipsos poll, 68 percent of registered voters who said they'd benefited or had a family member who had benefited from Chávez's social programs said they planned to vote for him.
Many, like Yelita Martínez, 29, live in the barrios-sprawling shantytowns that blanket the hills of Caracas. Every day, Martínez sells sodas and potato chips from the cement steps below a mass of haphazardly constructed houses in Petare, one of Latin America's largest slums.
Martinez studied for a year under Mission Robinson, a free program that provides elementary education to illiterate Venezuelans. She takes her three young sons to the Cuban doctors at Popular Clinics, part of the Mission Barrio Adentro program. And she shops at Mercal, the government-subsidized supermarket.
"When Chávez came, I really saw a change," Martínez said. But when asked if it's enough, Martínez shook her head. "It puts food on the table," she said, handing a customer a bottle of 50-cent Coca-Cola from the picnic-sized cooler by her feet.
According to the Venezuelan National Statistics Institute, 37.9 percent of Venezuelan households were living below the poverty line at the end of 2005-6 percent less than at the end of 1998, when Chávez first came into power, despite an oil strike in 2003 and 2004 that crippled the economy and increased poverty dramatically.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, argues in a May 2006 report, "Poverty Rates in Venezuela: Getting the Numbers Right," that the true benefits derived from Chávez' missions can't be solely measured by looking at the poverty rate. Mission Robinson, for example, has helped 1.4 million Venezueleans learn to read and write, according to Weisbrot's report.
Detractors, however, charge that of the billions Chávez has put into the missions, much pours directly into the pockets of corrupt officials.
The main problem is "transparency," says Armando Barrios, an economist and academic coordinator at the Institute for Higher Studies in Management (IESA) in Caracas. "Who is receiving these benefits? It looks like the Chavistas are receiving more than the opposition."
In addition to corruption, there's a widespread belief in Venezuela that those who don't support Chávez can't obtain a position with the government. While some hold government jobs, many feel that they have to suppress, or lie about, their political leanings.
Just weeks before the Dec. 3 election, the opposition obtained an internal video of a closed meeting at the state-owned oil company, PDVSA. The video showed Energy Minister Rafael Ramírez telling company directors that failing to support Chávez was "counterrevolutionary," and that those who didn't feel comfortable doing so should "give up their seat to a Bolivarian."
Chávez responded to the resulting uproar by saying Ramírez should "make the same speech 100 times."
But opposition candidate Rosales still commands a large following of those willing to show their true colors. On the Saturday before the Chávez rally, supporters clad in blue T-shirts clogged one of Caracas' main arteries in the Chacaito district, dancing in the streets under the scorching sun.
Hundreds of thousands attended, including Elita Sánchez, 48, and her small dog, Snow. Sánchez said she supports Rosales because he's "very educated" and "familiar."
"He's looking out for us," she said. Like the majority of those attending the march, Sánchez was from one Caracas' higher-income areas.
Chávez-who, like most Venezuelans, is of mixed black, white and Indian decent-is "in control," Sánchez said. And he's "very ordinary."
But that's precisely why the Chavistas support him.
On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 3, an eerie calm descended over the usually frenetic city of Caracas. Most stores and businesses were closed. Metros were free of charge, their suffocating crowds and endless ticket lines noticeably absent.
The election was closely watched, with about 60 observers from the Organization of American States, more than 130 from the European Union and a handful from the (Jimmy and Rosalynn) Carter Center.
Outside a polling station at an Altamira college in early afternoon, about 20 people were waiting. Adolfo Acosta, a 43-year-old lawyer, said he was there to vote for Rosales because Venezuela has a "totalitarian system."
"I think it's difficult to have a democratic vote under Chávez," he confided in the conspiratorial manner so many Venezuelans adopt when speaking about politics. He's "a dictator."
Across town, in the Petare neighborhood, Omaira Sarmientos-a pretty young woman in a red T-shirt-expressed a different sentiment. "We are not worried, because Chávez is going to win," she said. "The vote is legal and secret, but it's red-very red."
As numerous polls in the lead-up to the elections suggested, Chávez won with 62 percent of the vote. Rosales conceded defeat late Sunday night, with just under 80 percent of the ballots counted.
In Altamira, the crowd dissipated. Some supporters made their way to Miraflores, the presidential palace.
"It's another defeat for the empire of Mr. Danger," Chávez shouted from a balcony, using his pet name for George W. Bush.
Shortly afterward, U.S. State Department officials made statements indicating their desire to improve relationships with Chávez. Congratulations came flooding in from the rest of Latin America.
"Venezuelans didn't vote for me; they voted for a socialist project," Chávez told reporters outside Venezuela's National Electoral Council on Tuesday.
Whether the "socialist project" serves the greater interests of Venezuela, boosts the economy and reduces poverty-or further polarizes the country's population, isolates it from foreign nations and squanders its petrodollars-remains to be seen.
Either way, Saúne, the Peruvian, was right: Venezuela has become a very important country.