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Venezuela's Chavez Defeats Recall; Foes Reject Results

Leftist leader draws 58% support in balloting endorsed by monitors. Oil markets are relieved.

August 17, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez convincingly defeated a recall effort, election results showed Monday, ending more than two years of efforts to eject him from office in a vote that international observers deemed free and fair.

On a balcony at the Miraflores presidential palace, where hundreds of his supporters gathered for a celebration as the results were announced about 4 a.m., Chavez proclaimed, "The Venezuelan people have spoken, and the people's voice is the voice of God!"

Devastated opposition leaders refused to accept the judgment of voters and election monitors, and some said they would seek a recount of Sunday's balloting.

Despite fears that the results could spark unrest, only small bands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest. The only serious outbreak of violence occurred when presumed loyalists of the president opened fire on an anti-Chavez gathering, killing a 62-year-old woman and injuring several people, Caracas police and opposition leaders reported.

The rule of the leftist Chavez has left the country deeply divided. Although many poor Venezuelans see him as their savior, the middle and upper classes accuse him of ruining the economy and seeking to impose Cuban-style communism on their oil-rich nation.

Chavez's time in power has also strained ties with the U.S. American officials have voiced suspicions about his close association with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Chavez, in turn, has accused Washington of funding opposition groups to oust him.

According to results released by election officials, 58% of voters supported keeping Chavez in office for the remaining two years of his term. International observers, led by former President Jimmy Carter and Cesar Gaviria of the Organization of American States, urged foes to accept the outcome, deeming the vote free and fair and the outcome consistent with their own assessments.

"Now it is the responsibility of all Venezuelans to accept the results and work together for the future," said Carter, who led the U.S.-based Carter Center delegation in monitoring the fiercely contested referendum. He said he and Gaviria were urging Chavez and those still bent on driving him out of office to "find common ground on which a dialogue can be established."

Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, supplies about 15% of U.S. needs. Fears of disrupted supplies in the event of an opposition victory had helped drive prices to historic highs. Word of Chavez's victory helped settle market nerves, with crude oil prices dropping mildly around the world Monday.

Chavez and his red-clad supporters jubilantly embraced the results as soon as they were announced in the early morning. The tabulation had been delayed because poll hours were extended amid a record turnout of 8.5 million voters. The huge showing overwhelmed a new electronic balloting system, and thousands were still lined up to vote after midnight.

At a news conference Monday evening, Chavez appeared to reach out to his opponents, saying national reconciliation was needed to build a strong and prosperous Venezuela in which the oil wealth benefits the whole population.

"My call [to dialogue] is sincere. I'm not being cynical," Chavez said during the four-hour appearance. "This is not just about Chavez, or the government, but a project for the country."

Outside the palace, Chavistas chanted and waved the yellow, blue and red colors of the Venezuelan flag, filling the rubbish-strewn streets to celebrate their triumph.

Some spoke of the need to mend the social divide that spurred a coup against Chavez in April 2002, prompted a devastating national strike that cost Venezuela 10% of its gross domestic product last year and culminated in the bitter struggle to stage the recall referendum.

"We need to reconcile. The opposition needs to get behind the president's social programs because they are good for everybody," said Luisa Flores, an unemployed laborer enrolled in Mission Robinson, a literacy drive that is one of Chavez's key social achievements.

In an interview with The Times on Saturday, Chavez said that if he triumphed in the recall vote, he would continue programs to improve healthcare and education for the poor. He also said he would move forward with public works projects and job-creation efforts. Without mentioning specifics, he said further judicial reforms might be needed to ensure "social justice" for all Venezuelans.

William Avila, a photographer waving pictures of his revered president across from the palace, said Chavez's victory should lead to domestic reconciliation as well as improved relations with Washington.

"This victory is important for the whole world. Now everyone must understand that Chavez has both the experience and the authority to preside over the country," said Avila, enjoying a beer after the noon expiration of a two-day "dry law" invoked to deter public disturbances during the voting.

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