YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Venezuelans Flock to the Polls to Vote on a Divisive President

The turnout for the recall referendum could be the largest in decades. Supporters and foes of Chavez wait in line patiently for hours.

August 16, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — Millions of Venezuelans eager to cast ballots on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez overwhelmed polling stations across this polarized nation Sunday, prompting organizers to extend voting into this morning.

The massive turnout was one of the highest ever in Venezuela, forcing some people to wait as long as 10 hours to vote. As lines -- some more than a mile long -- snaked around buildings and through shantytowns, patient Chavez supporters and foes alike inched through queues hauling lawn chairs, books, umbrellas, knitting, bottled water, food and cellphones.

The balloting was the culmination of two years of vitriolic confrontation between those who view the 50-year-old leftist president as a dangerous demagogue and those who revere him as a champion of the poor.

Official results were expected today. Although Venezuelan regulations forbade release of results from independent voter surveys until the outcome was announced, the New York-based polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates forecast a landslide vote to oust Chavez.

The firm's exit poll of more than 20,000 voters suggested that 59% of an estimated 8 million votes cast by early evening were against Chavez.

But a public relations firm working for the government said a poll it had commissioned showed Chavez defeating the recall with 55% of the vote. The Caracas firm of Varianza Opinion based its projection on more than 53,000 interviews, said Michael Shellenberger, president of El Cerrito-based Lumina Strategies.

Chavez supporters celebrated what they assumed would be a triumph, as hundreds gathered around the presidential palace to chant praise and set off firecrackers. Army troops, deployed throughout the capital to ensure security at the polls, were reinforced late in the night to guard against the street parties turning into clashes.

Fears of a violent reaction by whichever side loses have made global oil markets nervous. Shipments from Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest exporter, have kept supplies steady to the U.S. market amid disruptions caused by the war in Iraq and problems in Russia. Oil prices are at record highs, and Asian markets saw another jump early today on fears of unrest after the Venezuelan vote is counted.

On Sunday, three people were reported killed in election-related violence, including one in a drive-by shooting outside a polling station in east Caracas. But the atmosphere was generally festive as each side remained convinced that the high turnout would ensure its victory.

Observers from all factions blamed the delays on a complicated new electronic balloting system and on the greater-than-expected turnout. Central Electoral Council Rector Jorge Rodriguez said the turnout was the largest in at least 20 years and possibly in Venezuelan history.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who has observed numerous elections in Venezuela in recent years, said: "This is the largest turnout I have ever seen. There are thousands of people in line, waiting patiently and without any disturbance."

Those waiting to vote resented the delays but cheered their divided nation's civic spirit.

"It's spectacular that so many people have turned out. But the organizers should have expected this. Even the Ni-Nis [undecided voters] know today is the day you have to make a decision," schoolteacher Aura Padilla said midway through a six-hour wait.

The referendum asked the country's 14 million registered voters to say "yes" to end Chavez's term two years early or "no" to defeat the recall.

The balloting was the result of a two-year drive by Chavez's opponents to oust him. Those efforts began with a short-lived coup in 2002, followed by a two-month strike ending early last year that paralyzed the vital oil industry and caused the national economy to shrink 10%.

First elected as a populist in 1998, Chavez has attempted to remake Venezuela and redress inequities he blames on four decades of rule by two elite parties that, he says, cared only for businesspeople and landowners.

He oversaw the drafting of a new constitution, giving new rights to the impoverished majority. He launched campaigns against illiteracy and illness, with the help of 12,000 volunteers dispatched by Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Opponents, though, fear that the former paratrooper is moving to emulate Castro's communism, and they complain that his style has become increasingly authoritarian as he fills key industrial and civil-service posts with soldiers and police.

Foes also blame Chavez for Venezuela's economic woes. The country has an unemployment rate of 15%, the worst inflation in Latin America at 25%, and sliding per capita income.

The strong emotions that Chavez has stirred appeared to sustain voters as they waited to cast ballots Sunday.

"We're prepared to wait all night, as long as they don't close the polls. It's an endurance race," said Yndira Diaz, a communications professor and Chavez opponent in line at a school in the middle-class Chacaito neighborhood.

Los Angeles Times Articles