'Chavez has the votes," William Camacaro from Queens predicted yesterday as he boarded a plane at Kennedy Airport for his homeland of Venezuela.
The war in Iraq may get all the press attention these days but for Camacaro and thousands of New York Latinos, this week's big story is Sunday's recall referendum in Venezuela, where voters will decide the fate of President Hugo Chavez.
Not since Fidel Castro in the 1960s has Latin America produced a more controversial figure than Chavez.
A charismatic former army paratrooper who won landslide elections in both 1998 and 2000, Chavez has moved ahead with a populist program to improve conditions for the 80% of Venezuelans who live in poverty.
The nation's tiny upper and middle classes, long accustomed to milking the country's huge oil revenues, have mounted a furious resistance to what Chavez calls his Bolivarian revolution.
Aided by constant favorable coverage from the country's private media companies, opposition leaders have sought repeatedly to topple Chavez from power. Two years ago, they even launched a military coup that won the initial backing of the Bush administration before collapsing.
Chavez barely survived that coup and several national strikes that followed, and he now faces another test in this referendum. The vote comes at a time, however, when his popularity is on the rebound.
White House officials have never hidden their disdain for Chavez, and several of his opponents have received financial backing from U.S.-connected groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, but the Bush administration has had to tread lightly.
Venezuela, after all, is our nation's third-largest supplier of oil - even with Chavez in power.
Each day 1.5 million barrels of Venezuelan oil enter the United States. That's more oil than even Saudi Arabia supplies us.
And with oil prices at record levels, the Chavez government is swimming in cash - enough to finance a huge expansion of social spending.
"A lot of people have seen the fruits of the programs Chavez started," says Eva Golinger, a Brooklyn lawyer who travels frequently to her Venezuelan homeland and who has seen those programs in action.
There is, for example, Mision Robinson, the literacy program where the government pays the minimum wage to any adult Venezuelan for learning to read and write.
Then there is Mision Rivas and Mision Sucre, which provide government payments for studying for a high school or college degree.
Another program, Barrio Adentro, has dispatched 10,000 Cuban doctors to Venezuela's worst shantytowns to provide free medical care.
Mision Vivienda has distributed thousands of free government-built apartments and houses to slum dwellers.
For those who espouse neo-liberal economic models for the Third World, the Chavez revolution seems a disturbing throwback to a bygone era of government largess.
Opponents of Chavez bluntly claim his government is a socialist dictatorship in the making.
But in Latin America a string of U.S.-backed neo-liberal governments were driven from office in recent years because of popular unrest. There, many see the ballot box revolution Chavez has engineered as a nonviolent way to finally close the region's obscene gap between rich and poor.
"A lot of poor people who have never voted before will come out this Sunday for Chavez because of what he's delivered," Golinger says.
Chavez opponents know ousting him will not be easy.
According to Venezuela's constitution, they must not only garner a majority of the votes in the referendum, the total anti-Chavez vote must surpass the 3.7 million who voted for him in the last election.
Former President Jimmy Carter and hundreds of international observers are scheduled to arrive in Caracas this week to monitor the voting.
"It will be historic," Golinger says. "I wouldn't miss it for anything."
Juan Gonzalez is a columnist for the New York Daily News, Past President National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and co-host of Democracy Now!