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Chavez Survives Recall Vote; Opponents Claim Fraud

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) president, Francisco Carrasquero, said that with 94 percent of ballots counted, Chavez secured 58 percent of the votes against the opposition’s 42 percent vote in the referendum whether to remove the populist president from office before his term ends in 2006.

Chavez, the fiery leader who survived a coup two years ago, addressed thousands of cheering supporters, thanking God for “a clear, transparent and sound victory.”

“The Venezuelan people have spoken and the people’s voice is the voice of God,” Chavez told the crowd from a balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace in the pre-dawn darkness.

Chavez, a former paratrooper who staged his own unsuccessful coup in 1992, enjoys his greatest support from Venezuela’s poor majority, many of whom regard Chavez as a national savoir. As head of the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, Chavez has used oil revenues to spend heavily on housing, food and medical care programs as part of his “Revolution for the Poor.”

Chavez pledged to continue his “Bolivarian Revolution,” named after the country’s independence war hero Simon Bolivar, and “to deepen social successes and the fight against exclusion and poverty.” He also called his referendum win a triumph over the neoliberalism “they tried to impose to us from Washington,” according to Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

Yet, Chavez has angered many in Venezuela’s upper and middle classes, oil producers and some labor unions, who say he is mishandling the country’s vast oil reserves. Venezuela’s traditional elite and business leaders also fear that Chavez seeks to impose a Cuban-style communist state.

In his victory speech, Chavez offered a rare conciliatory appeal to the opposition, saying: “This is a victory for the opposition…They defeated violence, coup-mongering and fascism. I hope they accept this as a victory and not as a defeat.”

However, the country’s umbrella opposition group, Democratic Coordinator, refused to accept the final tally and demanded a manual recount, saying the official results were a fraud engineered through the use of new electronic voting machines.

“We categorically and absolutely reject these results,” said Henry Ramos Allup, a leader of the Democratic Coordinator.

“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,” Ramos Allup told reporters.

On Monday, former U.S. Pres. Jimmy Carter, head of the Atlanta-based Carter Center that helped monitor the referendum, endorsed the CNE’s returns showing Chavez survived the recall vote by a wide margin.

“Our findings coincided with the partial returns announced today by the National Elections Council,” Carter told a news conference.

The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Cesar Gaviria, who also led a team of international observers, ratified the official results as well.

Speaking at a press conference with Carter, Gaviria said observers “have not found any element of fraud in the process.”

“Until elements of fraud emerge we are not going put the results in doubt,” Gaviria said. “If the opposition has a serious concern, we are willing to work with them, but not to put the results in doubt.”

Dismissing concerns of voter intimidation, Carter said: “We have not recorded grave cases of intimidation or violence that would have affected the decision of voters.”

Carter called on all Venezuelans — including the opposition groups — to accept the results.

“Now it’s the responsibility of all Venezuelans to accept the results and work together for the future,” said Carter.

Opposition leaders did not immediately respond to the join announcement.

Sunday’s historic referendum drew an unprecedented large number, with roughly 60 percent of Venezuela’s registered 14 million voters patiently waiting in line for up to nine hours to cast their ballots on whether or not to recall Chavez.

Both Gaviria and Carter visited several voting centers, remarking on the high voter turnout and the welcome, though unexpected, calmness that pervaded the country Sunday.

“This is the largest turnout I have ever seen. … We have been visiting several electoral centers in Caracas since early morning (Sunday), and we have seen thousands of people waiting patiently, in a peaceful and orderly manner,” Carter told reporters.

Gaviria concurred, saying: “We’ve been across the country and we have not come across any incidents that cause us concern. People are coming in massive numbers to vote, many more than we expected. Finally, this country is going to find what it has been looking for — the political conflicts can be solved through electoral means.”

The presidential recall vote, the first in Venezuela’s history, was intended to end two years of Chavez’s tumultuous rule, marked by often violent political riots and general strikes.

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. At the same time, Chavez’s administration has been careful to guarantee that oil exports to the United States would not be disrupted by the recall vote.