Recall vote on Chavez attracts huge crowd

Venezuelans wait as long as 9 hours to cast ballots

Venezuelans wait up to 9 hours to vote on Chavez

August 16, 2004|By Gary Marx | Gary Marx,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CARACAS, Venezuela - Faced with long lines and some confusion, millions of Venezuelans went to the polls yesterday to decide whether populist President Hugo Chavez would remain in power or his self-described revolution would be turned back.

A record turnout combined with a troublesome new electronic voting system forced voters to wait up to nine hours to cast their ballots and forced officials to keep polling stations open until midnight.

By late last night it was unclear whether the opposition secured enough votes to oust Chavez, a charismatic former army paratrooper whose five-year presidency has been characterized by sweeping internal changes and prickly relations with the United States.

There were no reports of fraud or widespread violence, a concern for the scores of international observers who have descended on this nation of 26 million people, who have been wracked by years of strikes and bloody demonstrations.

"Everything is going very well," said former President Jimmy Carter, who was helping to monitor the vote.

Election officials had hoped to release results several hours after the polls' scheduled close at 4 p.m. yesterday. But, with the delays, the official results might not be known until today in a historic vote whose margin is expected to be razor-thin. Both sides circulated poll results late yesterday indicating that they were ahead.

To remove Chavez, the opposition must get more than the 3.76 million votes the president received in winning the 2000 presidential election and also have more votes than supporters of Chavez.

An opposition victory would force Chavez, whose term ends in late 2006, to immediately hand over power to Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel. New presidential elections would be held within 30 days.

Despite vilifying his opponents as "devils," Chavez has vowed to respect the results of the referendum and, should he lose, immediately run again.

But the Venezuelan Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether Chavez is eligible to stand for office.

"We are waiting calmly and are preparing mentally, and with a lot of joy, to accept the result, no matter what the result will be," Chavez said yesterday morning after casting his ballot.

Enrique Mendoza, a top opposition leader, also urged calm late last night and told supporters to continue waiting patiently to cast their votes.

Experts warn that no matter who wins the referendum, the nation remains deeply divided. They urged its leaders to begin talks aimed at reducing the economic and political divisions that have been exacerbated during Chavez's presidency.

U.S. officials are closely watching the outcome of the vote, which could have a major impact on oil prices if either side challenges the results and sparks violence.

Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and supplies about 14 percent of the United States' petroleum products.

Rafael Ramirez, minister of energy and mines, has warned that workers at Petroleos de Venezuela, the giant state-owned oil company, would not accept a Chavez defeat and could go on strike. Experts say such a move would likely send record oil prices even higher.

Failed coup in 1992

The son of a schoolteacher, Chavez was thrust into prominence in 1992 after leading a failed coup, and he won the presidency in a landslide six years later.

After changing the constitution, Chavez won re-election in 2000 and two years later survived a short-lived, bloody coup.

Since then, Venezuela has been increasingly polarized between those who see the 50-year-old president as a hero of the poor and those who describe him as a dangerous and inept demagogue.

With government coffers flush with oil revenues, Chavez has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent months on a literacy campaign, state markets that sell subsidized food, scholarships to those finishing high school and other social programs.

"He's done so many good things for the country," said Obregon Jairo, a 39-year-old construction worker waiting in line to vote in a poor neighborhood in western Caracas. "I'm sure he is going to win."

A father of two children, Jairo said he often shops at the state-subsidized markets and has just enrolled in the program that assists adults in earning high school diplomas.

He is concerned that an opposition victory would end such programs.

But Chavez also has made many enemies with his talk of class warfare, his alliance with Cuban President Fidel Castro and his effort to pack the Supreme Court and other state institutions with political supporters.

Unemployment and poverty also have increased in recent years - something that appears to have cut into Chavez's support even among the poor.

"Before there was work and now there is no work," said Marisol Afajardo, a 52-year-old retiree who once supported Chavez. "The country needs a change."

`A democratic country'

Across town, in upscale eastern Caracas, the anti-Chavez sentiment is even more pronounced.

"Chavez is crazy," said Jerry Gregg, a 43-year-old hotel owner. "We don't believe in revolution. We are a democratic country."

One thing most Venezuelans had in common yesterday was long lines and frustrating delays at the voting booth.

With the stakes so high, voters began arriving at 3 a.m. outside schools and other polling places. In El Rosal, a crowd of voters let out a collective cheer as the first vote was cast about 7 a.m., one hour after polls were scheduled to open.

As the hours passed, Venezuelans waiting to vote read newspapers and magazines while others chatted with family or friends, listened to music or sipped cups of coffee or soda sold by street vendors.

"I got up at 2 o'clock in the morning and arrived at the polling station at 4," said Nelly Sanchez, a 54-year-old housewife. "I was really motivated to vote because I believe in the president."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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