Published on Monday, August 16, 2004 by Reuters
Chavez Declares Recall Victory With 58% Majority
by Patrick Markey
CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a populist who survived a coup two years ago, appeared on Monday to have weathered the latest challenge to what he calls his revolution to help the poor as he declared victory in a historic recall referendum.
With 94 percent of electoral rolls counted, 58 percent of voters cast ballots against removing Chavez from office, said National Electoral Council President Francisco Carrasquero.
Chavez, dressed in a red shirt, appeared on the balcony of his Miraflores presidential palace in downtown Caracas and led hundreds of supporters in singing the national anthem before dawn.
"The Venezuelan people have spoken and the people's voice is the voice of God!" roared Chavez, who has diverted wealth from oil sales to housing, food and medical care for the poor majority.
But opposition leaders claimed the same margin of victory as Chavez, saying the official results were a fraud engineered through the use of electronic voting machines.
"We firmly and categorically reject the result. ... We're going to collect the evidence to prove to Venezuela and the world the gigantic fraud which has been committed against the will of the people," said opposition leader Henry Ramos Allup.
The judgment of international observers, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, could be key to stability in the world's No. 5 oil exporter. They praised the voting Sunday but have still to give their final verdict on the referendum.
"With the sides now so polarized, a decision either way could trigger unrest," Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Jan Dehn said in a research note Monday.
TWO YEARS OF CONFRONTATION
The recall was the latest chapter in more than two years of often violent confrontation between Chavez and his critics.
The vote had stoked fears of renewed violence, especially if the results were close. But the opposition had not called any protests as of early Monday. Oil markets worried that a Chavez defeat could trigger unrest in the military and the state oil firm PDVSA.
Oil prices sat near record highs over $46 a barrel even though news Chavez had won and would serve out his term until 2007 calmed jitters over disruptions to shipments from Venezuela, a key supplier to the U.S. market. A loose coalition of disparate political parties, labor unions and civilian groups, the opposition is often united only by its hatred of Chavez. They had struggled to present a clear alternative to his left-wing reforms.
A clear victory for Chavez could leave his critics with few options but to regroup before congressional elections next year and a presidential election in 2006.
In a rare conciliatory gesture, Chavez called during his speech for applause for his opponents. But he vowed to intensify his social reforms.
Chavez, who tried to seize power in a coup in 1992 but won a presidential election in 1998, is detested by Venezuela's traditional ruling elite, who say he has squandered the world's largest oil reserves outside the Middle East.
He was briefly overthrown in a military coup two years ago but returned in triumph after poor supporters flooded central Caracas and loyal troops backed him.
Chavez, a friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, has blamed President Bush for backing the coup against him and accused him of funding the opposition. But he has been careful to guarantee oil supplies to the United States.
© Copyright 2004 Reuters