Landmark Venezuela vote drags into night
CARACAS — Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez won re-election on Sunday, quashing an opposition's best bet at unseating him in 14 years and cementing himself as a dominant figure in modern Latin American history.
The 58-year-old Chavez took 54.42 percent of the vote, with 90 percent of the ballots counted, to 44.97 percent for young opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, official results showed.
Chavez's victory would extend his rule of the OPEC member state to two decades, though he is recovering from cancer and the possibility of a recurrence hangs over his political future.
A huge voter turnout swamped polling sites across Venezuela on Sunday as a united, well-organized opposition candidate gave Chavez the race of his life.
Tensions rose in the bitterly divided country while an undetermined number of voting stations remained open well after the official 6 p.m. closing time.
While not accusing the government of an intentional delay, challenger Henrique Capriles complained hours after polls were scheduled to close that most voting stations lacked lines and that the government should get on with the vote-counting.
Capriles spokesman Armando Briquet demanded that all motorcycle traffic be banned. In the past, gangs of red-shirted motorcyclists chanting pro-Chavez slogans have intimidated people.
Jubilant supporters poured onto the streets of Caracas to celebrate the victory of a man who has near-Messianic status among Venezuela's poor, and there was relief too among leftist allies around the region — from Cuba to Bolivia — who rely on his oil-financed generosity.
“I'm celebrating with a big heart,” said Mary Reina, a 62-year-old Chavez supporter who lives in the hillside slum where the president cast his vote. “Chavez is the hope of the people and of Latin America.” The mood was grim at Capriles' campaign headquarters, where opposition supporters broke into tears. The opposition will now have to regroup quickly for state elections in December.
Since taking power in 1999, the flamboyant former soldier has become a global flagbearer of “anti-imperialism,” gleefully baiting the U.S. government while befriending leaders from Iran to Belarus whom the West views with suspicion.
At home, casting himself as an heir to independence hero Simon Bolivar, Chavez has poured billions of oil revenues into anti-poverty programs, and skillfully used his humble roots and folksy oratory to build a close connection with the masses.
One pro-Chavez voter, private bodyguard Carlos Julio Silva, said that whatever his faults, Chavez deserves to win for spreading the nation's oil wealth to the poor with free medical care, public housing and other government largess.
“There is corruption, there's plenty of bureaucracy, but the people have never had a leader who cared about this country,” Silva said after voting for Chavez in a school in the Caracas slum of Petare. “That's why the people are going to re-elect Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias.”
At many polling places, voters started lining up hours before polls opened at dawn, some snaking blocks in the baking Caribbean sun. Some shaded themselves with umbrellas. Vendors grilled meat and some people drank beer.
“I'm really tired of all this polarization,” said Lissette Garcia, a 39-year-old clothes seller and Capriles supporter who voted in the affluent Caracas district of Las Mercedes. “I want to reconnect with all my friends who are ‘Chavistas.' ”
Violence flared sporadically during the campaign, including shootings and rock-throwing during rallies and political caravans. Two Capriles supporters were shot to death in the western state of Barinas last weekend.
Troops guarded thousands of voting centers across the country.
Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva said as he voted that all had been calm.
Chavez's opponents mounted a noisy protest in Caracas and other major cities Saturday night, beating pots and pans from the windows of their homes to show displeasure with the president — and also their hopes for change. Drivers on downtown streets honked horns, joining the din.
The 40-year-old Capriles infused the opposition with new optimism, and opinion polls pointed to him giving Chavez his closest election.
Some polls gave Chavez a lead of about 10 percentage points, while others put the two candidates about even.Chavez spoke little during the campaign about his fight with cancer, which since June 2011 has included surgery to remove tumors from his pelvic region as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment. He has said his most recent tests showed no sign of illness.
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