WASHINGTON — It started as a desire to witness history: Venezuela was on the eve of its first presidential recall referendum, and an epic struggle was being waged by the country’s workers and poor to defend their populist leader, President Hugo Chávez, from attacks from the right wing.

Arturo Griffiths wanted to go. Before long, he was traveling to Caracas as part of a documentary film crew. And he brought his son along, too, “so he could experience, firsthand, an exercise in participatory democracy.”

Griffiths, a member of the Service Employees International Union Local 500 and a longtime Washington, D.C., community activist, was among the many international observers and dignitaries who monitored the Aug. 15 presidential recall vote in Venezuela. He recently spoke to the World about his experiences.

“I was able to observe the recall referendum — the campaigns being conducted by the opposition forces as well as Chávez’ supporters,” Griffiths said. He saw mass rallies, including the pro-Chávez rally in the capital of over 1 million on Aug. 14, interviewed both pro- and anti-Chávez people on the street, and visited community centers, health clinics, schools, and polling places.

Particularly striking, Griffiths said, was “the mass participation of those sectors of the population who have traditionally been excluded from the political process: women, indigenous people, people of African descent, progressive trade unionists, peasants, and poor shantytown dwellers.” Until recently, he said, many people in these categories were not registered to vote. But by Election Day, about 95 percent of the eligible voters from these groups were registered and ready to cast their ballots.

On Election Day, “the lines extended for many blocks,” he said. “People were at the polls at 5 a.m., even though it started at 7 a.m. The polls did not close until 2:30 a.m. the following day.” The result was a decisive win — 59 percent — for the Venezuelan president.

President Chávez’ “Bolivarian Project,” which began with his election to the presidency in 1988, created a “path to empowerment” for these groups, Griffiths said, based on tangible socio-economic reforms.

Griffiths said the Bolivarian Project’s fundamental aspects are redistribution of the country’s oil wealth to the poor in the form of social programs and land reform; rejection of “neoliberal” economic policies of “free trade,” privatization, state austerity, and deregulation, all of which tend to favor big business over the ordinary citizen; participatory democracy and greater local self-government; and affirmative action that gives preferential treatment to previously excluded groups in financing, housing, educational and health programs.

In the shantytowns of Caracas, Griffiths said, “I personally saw people receive dental and eye examinations, and get eyewear products and on-the-spot prescriptions.” The Venezuelan government has been assisted in providing these services by large numbers of Cuban doctors and health professionals, who are there by special agreement with Havana.

Other government-sponsored programs include adult literacy campaigns, university scholarships for poor and working-class students, public works projects, employment training, and affordable housing laws. Over 130,000 families benefited from land reform in 2003, and another 100,000 are to be provided with land by the end of this year.

The opposition to Chávez, Griffiths said, is concentrated in the traditional, lighter-skinned elite of the country — the “oligarchy,” elements of the middle class, the right-wing-dominated media, the more conservative elements of the Catholic Church, and the leaders of the old-line trade union federation, the CTV.

“They were declaring that President Chávez must be overthrown,” he said, and that the country needed to return to its traditional setup. That setup condemned 70 percent of the population to poverty, even though the country is the fifth largest exporter of oil in the world.

Griffiths, who is of Afro-Panamanian ancestry, made special note of President Chávez’ attention to the interests of people of indigenous and African descent.

“I had the opportunity to visit the coastal area of Naguita, where a new school was inaugurated with the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This location is primarily Afro-Venezuelan, and I asked what impact, if any, the Bolivarian Project has had on their community. They said ‘for the first time we have hopes and aspirations,’ and Chávez is actually doing something to improve the conditions of the most marginalized.”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.