A few hours ago I was in the Venezuelan election centre in Caracas witnessing the room erupt into relief and delight at the official announcement that Hugo Chavez had won a fourth term. And the noise in the room was nothing compared to the pandemonium we could hear outside. Fireworks were being let off, cars and motorcycles were racing 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.
The relief was partly because a delayed result had meant hours of suspense. In Venezuela you have to let everyone who is queuing to vote cast their vote, even after the polls have officially closed. We election monitors had witnessed the unprecedented lines of people queuing patiently to cast their vote. This big turn-out meant many polling stations stayed open hours later than the advertised closing time and consequently delayed the announcement.
But, in the information vacuum, rumours were swirling around the city of Caracas that Chavez had in fact lost and this increased the tension. Nerves were also on edge because, although Chavez was used to facing a lavishly funded opponent with tacit support from the US, his opponents this time were united and the new opposition leader Henrique Capriles was young and dynamic. And Chavez himself had wrestled with cancer for over a year.
The election was not just a big event for Venezuela. It was a vital election for Latin America and the Caribbean. Chavez was 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.He has also helped the region in practical ways making oil available to cash strapped Caribbean countries on favourable terms (including the United States' bête noire Cuba). A defeat for Chavez would have been a disaster for the centre-left in the region and a victory for US neo-conservatives.
So the Venezuelan Electoral Commission 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, in a day touring polling stations, I observed 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.
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 Florida presidential election, Gore might have won Florida and recent American political history might have been very different. And far from opposition media being suppressed, virtually every leading paper supported Chavez' opponent. Along with other election observers, I spoke to representatives of the opposition party at every polling station we visited. They agreed the system was indeed free and fair.
Western critics of Chavez often forget his substantial achievements for the poor of Venezuela. Deaths in childbirth have gone down from 20in a 1000 to 13 in a 1000. Unemployment has gone down from 14.5% to 7.6% and the number of Venezuelans in extreme poverty has dropped from 23.4% to 8.5%.
It is those numbers and 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 is no succession plan.
But last night in the balmy Venezuelan night air, as the city of Caracas erupted with joy around us, there could be no doubt that the poor of Venezuela saw a victory for Chavez as a victory for themselves.