Down for the count
By Carlos Garcia Rawlins
I was standing on a raised television platform less than ten meters from “El Candidato,” when the scaffolding collapsed. It was nighttime in Barquisimeto, and with great difficulty I saw him appear, navigating through the dark mass of supporters. He was riding atop a pickup truck, waving to the crowd on the way to the stage. I could barely see anything in the darkness as the lighting system seemed to fail completely.
Just as I was about to take a picture, one of our platform supports gave way and we were on the verge of toppling onto the dark mass of people. It could have been a tragedy. It was the second collapse of the day, after another platform meant to hold journalists had collapsed earlier. In hindsight it was a perfect metaphor for what would happen four days later, when Henrique Capriles, a.k.a. El Candidato, lost the election to Hugo Chavez by more than a million and a half votes.
But for him and his team, losing wasn’t an option.
The rallies always had the same script, like a movie looped around to repeat itself. There were a few changes in light or in landscape, depending on the regions where they were held. It was a frantic campaign in which the opposition candidate toured all 24 states, four times. The state he visited least was Delta Amacuro, but he still stopped there twice.
In the first phase Capriles toured more than 300 towns around the country, including door-to-door visits of many rural districts and remote houses. The challenge of covering in these conditions meant dealing with multitudes of supporters crowded into small places and narrow streets with poor lighting. I had to cover many kilometers on foot while trying not to lose the objective – that small spot among the masses that moved faster than the rest and in whose center was Capriles.
The second phase was one of massive closing rallies in the main cities, at a rate of two cities per day. It felt like I spent the days going up and down the stairways of the plane that chased after the Candidate’s plane. Up the stairs, down the stairs, arrive at the rally, climb into and out of the Candidate’s truck looking for a better angle and a different photo, climb onto the stage, cover the speech, edit, transmit under the elements praying to God for a good Internet connection. Then do it all over again in the next city on the other side of the country.
I even managed to memorize the speeches. At this point my greatest worry was not even my physical resistance or the fatigue, but rather the quest not to take the same pictures of what was really an unending succession of rallies that became one long one lasting three weeks.
Nevertheless, through the whirlwind of activity that enveloped Capriles and the masses, he did manage to connect on a more intimate scale with the use of one simple element, his baseball cap. From the very start of the campaign, and under the threat of a ban by the electoral board, the cap became the opposition’s good luck charm.
Thousands of caps were handed out at the rallies, to the extent where they helped increase the intensity of the campaign. It was Henrique Capriles who personally gave away a large part of them. He would choose someone out of the crowd and fling it to them with precision as if taking target practice. He would celebrate when the cap reached the outstretched arms of the right fan. It was Capriles’ moment of triumph that I could tell he enjoyed.
A few days after the final rally of the three-month campaign, I felt like a runner about to finish a marathon. From time to time I wondered what was happening with the other half of Venezuela, the half that wanted Chavez. Immersed up to my nose in this flood of emotion, I ran the risk of losing perspective.
But being so absorbed in this fervor where nobody even imagined that anything other than victory was possible, allowed me to keep up my level of photo coverage. I never covered Capriles as “the one who would lose to Chavez.” I took the pictures of a likely winner until the last moment, even on the day in which the platforms collapsed.