August 17, 2004 | Washington Post [page A01]
by Mary Beth Sheridan
CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 16 — President Hugo Chávez was declared the winner of a national recall referendum by a substantial margin on Monday, and said he had won a fresh mandate for the highly centralized, populist style of government that has stirred fierce opposition at home and irritated the Bush administration.
About 58 percent of the voters in the Sunday ballot said “no” to a recall of Chavez, while 42 percent said “yes,” according to nearly complete returns from the national elections council. Officials said that at least 8.5 million of the country’s 14 million registered voters participated in the referendum.
Leaders of the coalition against Chavez, who has governed the country since 1999, summoned followers to the streets to protest what they said was vote fraud. But former president Jimmy Carter and a team of international monitors said the voting appeared fair and accurate.
The recall ballot was the culmination of a two-year campaign by opponents — who include many in the country’s middle and upper classes — to drive out Chavez, a populist whose support is based among Venezuela’s poor. The opposition backed a coup and organized strikes, demonstrations and other protests before finally gathering the millions of petition signatures needed to force a recall vote. Chavez’s government resisted the recall attempt for months before allowing it to go forward.
Isolated clashes between the president’s supporters and opponents were reported following his victory. Four Chavez opponents were wounded by gunfire, according to news media reports.
Despite the violence, the referendum clearly strengthened Chavez, a charismatic populist who has proclaimed a “revolution of the poor” in this nation of 25 million, championing like-minded movements throughout Latin America and maintaining close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel who led a failed coup in 1992, struck a conciliatory tone on Monday toward those who voted against him.
“We recognize the existence of the other,” Chavez said, referring to the opposition in a speech at the presidential palace.
“You have our respect and our recognition,” he added, seated in front of a Venezuelan flag and a portrait of Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar.
But Chavez blasted opposition leaders who refused to recognize his victory. He said the substantial vote in his favor indicated support for his policies, which include increased anti-poverty spending, social and health programs for the disadvantaged, and solidarity with Latin American protest movements.
“A new stage has begun — of deepening our programs,” Chavez said, without providing details.
Chavez’s victory also indicated a power shift away from the small, wealthy elite that dominated the country until economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s shattered the legitimacy of the traditional two-party system in one of Latin America’s oldest democracies. Chavez has endeared himself to the country’s downtrodden with his rough-hewn style and delivery of numerous social programs.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey did not mention Chavez by name in a statement about the recall. “We want to congratulate the Venezuelan people for the extraordinary civic spirit they demonstrated during yesterday’s referendum,” Casey said at a news briefing. He said the Bush administration, which has often harshly criticized Chavez, was awaiting final results and a report from election monitors.
But Carter and representatives of the Organization of American States endorsed the referendum process. “It’s the responsibility of all Venezuelans to accept the results and work together in the future,” Carter said.
Venezuela, which holds the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, is the No. 4 supplier of crude to the United States. World oil markets have been occasionally rattled by the unrest that has wracked this country in recent years, including a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez. A three-month general strike ending in February 2003 crippled the country’s oil industry, the pillar of the economy.
Oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange reached a record high of $46.91 per barrel for U.S. light crude on Monday. But the price slipped to $46.30 after the report of Chavez’s victory.
Venezuela has traditionally been a U.S. ally, but the relationship has soured as Chavez has condemned the Bush administration’s policies on issues such as Afghanistan and free trade.
Yamira Leon, 27, a street vendor, was one of thousands of people who celebrated Chavez’s victory on Monday.
“This is the best thing that could have happened. Before, we poor people didn’t count. Now we’re a majority,” said Leon, who was watching red-shirted Chavez supporters blow whistles and wave Venezuelan flags outside the downtown presidential palace.
The opposition coalition received the results with disbelief, saying that its exit polls had predicted Chavez would suffer a stinging defeat in the recall.
“One result doesn’t match the other,” said Alberto Quiros, a spokesman for the coalition known as the Democratic Coordinator. He and other opposition leaders said they wanted a manual recount of the votes.
“We can’t say to Venezuelans who came out to vote in massive numbers and who are being robbed of a huge victory that we are going to think for 24 hours,” said opposition leader Antonio Ledezma. “We have to take to the streets.”
Opposition supporters held small demonstrations in Caracas in the afternoon, yelling “Fraud!” and waving signs denouncing the results.
But analysts said the opposition would eventually have little option but to accept the results because the international monitors endorsed the process.
“With this, they are isolated,” said Margarita Lopez, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela. “It would be political suicide to try to maintain this attitude.”
Already, she said, some political parties and business executives have indicated they want to open talks with the government.
Many analysts said Chavez’s victory had as much to do with the opposition’s weakness as his strengths. As a loose-knit group, including conservative businessmen and former communist guerrillas, the coalition lacked effective leadership and a concrete program to convince voters, analysts said.
Chavez was also a formidable opponent. He has remained in power despite opposition from the United States and nearly every powerful group in Venezuela — business leaders, oil workers, media executives, the Catholic Church and labor unions.
In the past year, the president has used the country’s windfall from record oil prices to boost his popularity, funding a broad network of literacy programs, subsidized food stores and medical clinics in poor neighborhoods. He has welcomed hundreds of Cuban doctors and sports trainers to work in such programs.
A master communicator, Chavez has convinced many voters that the country’s overall woeful economic performance during his presidency is the fault of opposition leaders associated with past politicians who are still reviled for their alleged corruption.
“There’s no other politician in Venezuelan history, and no other politician in Latin America, who has been as skillful and effective,” said Moises Naim, a Venezuelan-born economist who is editor of the journal Foreign Policy and has been a Chavez critic. “The tragedy is he has a blank check in many ways.”
In fact, many of the president’s detractors worry that a strengthened Chavez could tighten his grip on more of the country’s institutions, as he has done with the judiciary, the military and the state-run oil company. He has concentrated power in the presidency, partly through public referendums.
Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the Venezuelan leader had enough money to aid like-minded movements in the hemisphere, but said he doubted the Chavez effect would catch on.
“Most people in Latin America recognize that his record has been pretty bad as president of Venezuela,” he said. “I don’t think this is the new hope, or the new way.”
U.S. officials have expressed concern that Chavez could be emboldened to step up his activism in Latin America, where he has embraced anti-American groups in El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries. Chavez has denied any interest in exporting his policies.