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By midnight, the National Election Commission still had not reported a result. Among the student leaders, nerves were fraying. Goicoechea spoke to contacts in the military that said the generals had told Chavez he must accept the result, but the students increasingly imagined that the regime intended to steal the election. At roughly 1 a.m., Vice President Rodríguez called and spoke to Leopoldo López, a young leader of the political opposition, who had been supportive of the students’ campaign and was there with the movement’s leaders. According to Barrios, the vice president implied that the regime intended to change the election results, and that the students had best not do anything about it in the interests of their own personal security. “And I remember Leopoldo answered him by saying that if you change the results of the election, you will find thousands of people in the streets and you will find me and the university students at the head of those protests,” says Barrios. The election had come down to a high-stakes game of chicken.
Even today, the students won’t say entirely what they had planned for that night and the next day. It had been Barrios’ responsibility to plan for the event in which the regime tried to steal the election. And at a few minutes past 1 in the morning, with the government still silent on the referendum’s result, the moment they hoped would never come had arrived: The student movement had to go out and defend its votes. “It was a scenario we had prepared for,” recalls Barrios. “I remember we all started leaving the room. We only had six bulletproof vests, so we gave them to the most recognizable of our leaders that were going to be out there protesting. And I remember there were not enough for me.As Barrios was about to leave, he stopped for a moment to call his parents. His mother picked up the phone.
“How are you doing, honey?” she said.
“Mom, shit got complicated,” he replied.
“What happened? Did we lose the election?”
“No, we won, but they might want to take it away.” And then Barrios remembers that his mom said the “cutest thing ever.”
“Don’t worry honey, these things happen sometimes. We’ll get them next time.”
“No,” Barrios told his mom. “We’re not going to get them next time. I mean, we won the election and we are going to push through.”
“What does that mean? When are you coming home?” his mom asked.
“I don’t think I’m coming home today, Mom.”
“So that means you are coming home tomorrow? When?”
“I don’t think I am coming home at all, Mom,” he replied. His mother dropped the phone and started crying. His father picked it up and Douglas told him what he had told his mother. His father demanded that he tell him where he was. He heard his father repeating, “Where are you? Where are you?” as he said goodbye and hung up. Barrios then took the battery out of his cell phone. He put it in one pocket and the phone in another, as he headed outside. He climbed onto a motorcycle, heading for the next location, where they would activate their plan. Just as he started to pull out, someone yelled, “Douglas, Douglas, wait, wait! They’re going to announce the results.”
Barrios jumped off the bike and ran back inside.
They had won. At 1:20 a.m., the vice president conceded the election. It would be several hours before Chavez would face his own supporters. To this day, the final vote tally from Dec. 2, 2007, has never been released. And, although it is impossible to say, it might never have happened if Chávez Chavez hadn’t closed down RCTV.
Adapted from The Dicatator’s Learning Curveby William J. Dobson. © 2012 by William J. Dobson. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of yhe Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.
William J. Dobson is Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter.