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VENEZUELA
Fresh mandate for Chavez
Mike Ceaser
8/26/2004
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Spending of oil revenues on poor boosted Chávez’s standing in recent months.

Venezuela’s government called for reconciliation and announced the expansion of its "revolution" in the wake of President Hugo Chávez’s resounding victory in an Aug. 15 recall referendum on his presidency.

"The advancement (of the revolution) is particularly in the social areas," said Vice President José Vicente Rangel. "We are going to press forward all that has to do with social aid...for the poorest sectors," of society.

Venezuelans backed Chávez’s mandate, which extends until the end of 2006, with 58 percent of the vote, according to results released by the National Electoral Council (CNE).

Voters turned out in record numbers, some standing in line for up to 12 hours under sun and rain to cast their ballots. In the middle-class neighborhood of Candelaria, Jean Carlo Navarro, 26, a university student, said he was voting to revoke Chávez’s mandate because quality of life in the country had declined under his rule.

"There’s more crime, more poverty, all the streets are potholed and filled with trash," he said.

But a few kilometers away in the poor 23 de enero barrio, where the government has provided subsidized food, free medical care and adult education courses, most voters backed Chávez.

"Many years have passed in which the poor people’s needs weren’t attended," said Ramsés Aiman López, 43.

This year, Venezuela’s economy is growing at a rate of 10 percent as it rebounds from the petroleum industry strike. However, this has not changed its long-term decline. Since 1998, per-capita income has dropped 25 percent. Between 1992 and 2001 the malnutrition rate rose from 11 to 18 percent of Venezuelans, according to the UNDP.

 

The president’s opponents, who include the traditional political parties, most of the media and the union and business leadership, had set their hopes on defeating Chávez in the recall vote. But Chávez survived the referendum, a coup attempt in 2002 and a devastating petroleum industry strike at the end of that same year.

When the opposition collected the signatures to trigger the referendum late last year, Chávez’s support was between 30 and 40 percent and his defeat appeared certain. But record petroleum prices have filled state coffers and enabled the government to bring popular education, nutrition and medical programs to the nation’s poor neighborhoods. Chávez’s popularity rose and most polls before the vote projected him winning narrowly.

The US government accepted Chávez’s victory, but did not congratulate him. With world petroleum prices at record highs and US President George W. Bush facing his own reelection battle, Washington feared instability in Venezuela which might interrupt its petroleum supplies.

Washington has not hidden its displeasure with Chavez, who once visited Saddam Hussein, has befriended Cuban President Fidel Castro and has branded U.S.-promoted free trade pacts "exploitative" of the Third World.

Washington had angered Chávez by sending congressional financing to his domestic opponents, in particular the organization Sumate, which led the signature drive to qualify the referendum for the ballot.

The Carter Center and Organization of American States (OAS), which monitored the election, said the process had been carried out correctly and endorsed the results.

 

Opposition leaders, however, insisted that fraud had occurred. The use of electronic voting machines, which had never before been used in an election, in particular generated suspicion. In addition, the opposition asked how it was possible that their vote total did not exceed by very much the number of signatures they originally turned in to trigger the referendum.

The opposition has demanded a manual recount of the paper ballots emitted by the machines, and the electoral council agreed to count a random sample of the ballots.

Caracas pollster Alfredo Keller said he did not dispute a Chávez victory, but asked how it was possible that Chávez won in several states in which polls had shown the opposition with wide leads. Those same polls had projected Chávez winning nationally, Keller said.

"The problem is not whether or not fraud occurred," Keller said, "but the consequences it could bring," in upcoming elections for mayors and governors in November.

But international observers’ reiterated their confidence in the official results. They urged the opposition to accept Chavez’s mandate and work with him. Nevertheless, Chavez’s opponents continued to insist that the president had won by fraud.

Manuel Malaver, a political scientist critical of Chávez and who accuses the president of authoritarianism, predicted the victory would make Chávez believe he had a free hand.

"At this moment, Chávez feels like a strong despot, a man with little inclination to listen," Malaver said. "He feels all-powerful, capable of doing whatever he wants."

While insisting without offering concrete evidence that the government had won by fraud, Malaver also called for new leaders for the opposition.

"Nowhere in the world do the generals who lose a battle continue being the generals," Malaver said.

But Deputy Willian Lara, a leader in parliament of Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) party, said the victory will bring Venezuela calm and economic growth.

"The victory will permit the elimination of disturbances to the nation’s civic life," he said. "It will bring more investments for the nation’s economy. Definitely, more United States companies are going to come."

Opposition leaders insisted that fraud occurred

The United States accepts Chávez’s victory


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