Hugo Chavez re-elected president of Venezuela
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Leftist President Hugo Chavez won re-election in Venezuela by a wide margin Sunday, giving him free reign for a more radical turn toward socialism and six more years to counter U.S. influence in Latin America and beyond.
Challenger Manuel Rosales conceded defeat but vowed to remain in opposition, resisting a leader he accuses of edging Venezuela toward authoritarian rule.
Minutes after the results were announced, Chavez appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace singing the national anthem. He pledged to deepen his effort to transform Venezuela into a more egalitarian society.
"Long live the socialist revolution! Destiny has been written," Chavez shouted to thousands of flag-waving supporters wearing red shirts and braving a pouring rain.
"That new era has begun," he said, raising a hand in the air. "We have shown that Venezuela is red! ... No one should fear socialism ... Socialism is human. Socialism is love," Chavez said. "Down with imperialism! We need a new world!"
'Defeat for the devil'
He said his victory was a blow to President Bush, whose government he calls dangerously imperialistic.
"It's another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world," Chavez said. "Down with imperialism! We need a new world!"
Since he first won office in 1998, Chavez has increasingly dominated all branches of government and his allies now control congress, state offices and the judiciary. Current law prevents him from running again in 2012 but he has said he plans to seek constitutional reforms that would include an end to presidential term limits.
He has increasingly posed a challenge to the United States while leading a growing bloc of Latin American leftists, influencing elections across the region, and allying himself with U.S. enemies like Iran and Syria.
Chavez also has used Venezuela's oil wealth to his political advantage. He channeled oil profits toward multibillion-dollar programs for the poor including subsidized food, free university education and cash benefits for single mothers. He has also helped allies from Cuba to Bolivia with oil and petrodollars.
He now promises an even more profound shake-up of society.
6 million votes
With 78 percent of voting stations reporting, Chavez had 61 percent to 38 percent for challenger Rosales, said Tibisay Lucena, head of the country's elections council. Chavez had nearly 6 million votes versus 3.7 million for Rosales, according to the partial tally.
Final turnout figures among the 15.9 million eligible voters were not available but an official bulletin of partial results showed it at 75 percent, making Chavez's lead insurmountable.
"We recognize that today they defeated us," Rosales told cheering supporters at his campaign headquarters. "We will continue in this struggle."
Some aides wept while others were angry.
"We have to do something," said 36-year-old Dona Bavaro. "My country is being stolen. This is the last chance we have. Communism is coming here."
Chavez has built increasingly close ties with communist Cuba and dedicated his victory "to the Cuban people and to our brother, President Fidel Castro, comrade."
Rosales, a cattle rancher who is now expected to return to his post of governor of the western state of Zulia, cast the election as a choice between freedom and increasing state control of people's lives. He decried rampant crime and corruption, widely seen as Chavez's main vulnerabilities.
Voting was fair
A top Rosales adviser, Teodoro Petkoff, said the voting was carried out in a "satisfactory manner." He said there were some irregularities but most were resolved. Another member of the Rosales camp had accused pro-Chavez soldiers of reopening closed polling stations and busing voters to them.
Even before polls closed, Chavez supporters celebrated in the streets, setting off fireworks and cruising Caracas honking horns and shouting "Chavez isn't going anywhere!"
The day began with Chavez loyalists jarring voters awake hours before dawn in Caracas with recordings of reveille blaring from truck-mounted loudspeakers.
"We're here to support our president, who has helped us so much," said Jose Domingo Izaguirre, a factory worker who waited hours to vote. His family recently moved into new government housing.
Rosales supporters accused Chavez of deepening class divisions with searing rhetoric demonizing his opponents.
The campaign has been hostile, with Chavez calling Rosales a pawn of Washington and Rosales saying he was on the alert for fraud. More than 125,000 soldiers and reservists were deployed to safeguard the balloting.
Conflict and ambition have marked the rise of Chavez, 52, from a boy selling homemade sweets in a dusty backwater to a failed coup commander in 1992 and now a leader who could set the tone of Latin American politics for years to come.
Constitutional reforms he oversaw in 1999 triggered new elections the following year that he easily won. Loyalists helped him survive a 2002 coup, a subsequent general strike and a 2004 recall referendum.
The president insists he is a democrat and will continue to respect private property -- though he has boosted state control over the oil industry and has said he might nationalize utilities. Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter and soaring oil prices have made it the continent's fastest growing economy.
Chavez has pledged at least $1.1 billion in loans and financial aid to Latin American countries in the past two years, and billions more in bond bailouts for friendly governments as well as generously financed oil deals. But the largesse has proved a weakness at home where many believe the aid comes at the expense of addressing domestic problems.