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President jimmy carter affirms chavez victory { August 17 2004 }

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August 17, 2004
Venezuela Votes by Large Margin to Retain Chávez

CARACAS, Venezuela, Aug. 16 - Venezuelans voted overwhelmingly to keep President Hugo Chávez in power, electoral authorities and international monitors said Monday. But a strident opposition movement refused to accept the results of the recall referendum, raising prospects for more turmoil in Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.

Mr. Chávez, a pugnacious leftist populist who has already survived four national strikes and a brief coup, won handily after 8.5 million of Venezuela's 14 million registered voters swarmed polling stations in voting that began at 6 a.m. Sunday and ended well past midnight.

"The Venezuelan people have spoken and the people's voice is the voice of God!" said Mr. Chávez, holding a microphone and standing in a balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace in a predawn address. His victory eased world oil prices, which had been buffeted by concerns that a successful recall, and the ensuing violence that some expected, could disrupt production at the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela.

With 95 percent of ballots counted, Francisco Carrasquero, the president of the National Electoral Council, announced early Monday that Mr. Chávez had the backing of 58 percent of the voters, against 42 percent for the opposition. Mr. Chávez drew nearly 5 million votes, while the opposition collected fewer than 3.6 million.

As of Monday night, opposition leaders had not backed off from their charges that a "gigantic fraud" had occurred. Anti-government protesters threw rocks at a group of pro-government demonstrators, who witnesses said pulled out guns and fired shots that killed a 62-year-old woman and wounded several others.

But the Organization of American States and the Atlanta-based Carter Center - monitors invited by the government and opposition to validate the outcome - said the results were legitimate .

"There is a clear difference in favor of the government of President Chávez," former President Jimmy Carter, who heads the Atlanta-based Carter Center, said at a joint news conference with César Gaviria, secretary general of the O.A.S. and a former president of Colombia.

The two men explained that the "quick counts" their organizations conducted at various polling stations coincided with the outcome released by the Electoral Council. The quick counts, used in elections around the world, tally totals from various polling sites, have a margin of error of 1 percent and are more accurate than exit polls.

"We have found the information from the quick count was almost exactly the same as that presented" by the electoral authorities, said Mr. Carter, 79, whose organization has monitored elections in 51 counties. He added that "all Venezuelans should accept the results of the C.N.E.," the electoral body, "unless there is tangible proof that the reports are incorrect."

Shortly after the polls closed at midnight, opposition leaders were quick to predict victory. So when the computerized voting system used in the election tabulated the results, showing the government had clearly won, the two of five electoral board members who side with the opposition were stunned, according to diplomats who were in the room at the time.

Opposition leaders who met with Mr. Carter and Mr. Gaviria were further surprised when the monitors told them they believed the count was just, and that their own samples confirmed the outcome.

Mr. Carter, in a meeting with five American reporters Monday afternoon, said that two or three of the opposition leaders in the two-hour meeting became "extremely irate."

"Their faces were white and they were very condemnatory of our lack of objectivity and fairness," Mr. Carter said. Others, like the opposition's best-known leader, Enrique Mendoza, were clearly astonished and remained quiet, he said.

Soon after, Henry Ramos, a spokesman for the Democratic Coordinator, the umbrella of 27 opposition political parties, announced, "We categorically reject the results."

"They have perpetrated a gigantic fraud against the will of the people," he said.

Recent polls had indicated that Mr. Chávez would squeak to victory, though political analysts had hesitated to predict the outcome, saying the polls' results were too close to call. As it turned out, Mr. Chávez's fervent supporters - mainly people from the poor barrios who believe he is the first president to speak for them - voted overwhelmingly in his favor.

"The opposition has to recognize Chávez is our leader, that he has virtues," said Guadeth Peńa, 35, who turned out to celebrate Monday at the presidential palace. "Venezuela has changed. The people are not ignorant like the opposition thinks. We are no longer blind. We will not longer be fooled."

Mr. Carter, in his meeting with the American reporters, expressed concern that the leaders of the Democratic Coordinator had not accepted the results and were instead insisting the vote was fraudulent because of exit polls opposition organizations had conducted.

Those polls, Mr. Carter said, "are quite unreliable," and have a high chance of being biased. "I wish they would accept the results," he said.

Mr. Carter and Mr. Gaviria said that there could be some discrepancies in the final tally, but fraud was all but impossible. They said that they would look into fraud claims, if proof were presented.

Mr. Chávez, in his early morning address after it was clear he had won, was relatively conciliatory toward the opposition, which in the past he has called "squalid ones" and a "rancid oligarchy."

"This is a victory for the opposi tion," he said. "They defeated violence, coup-mongering and fascism. I hope they accept this as a victory and not as a defeat."

Mr. Carter said that he had talked to Mr. Chávez about the need to patch together a relationship with the opposition as well as scaling back his verbal outbursts against the Bush administration.

Mr. Chávez has declared himself at odds with nearly all facets of American policy in Latin America, such as its military aid to neighboring Colombia and efforts to expand free trade agreements across the region. Although he has said repeatedly that Venezuela will continue providing oil to the United States, in recent months he had stepped up attacks on President Bush, whom he accused of backing the opposition.

The new lease on power of Mr. Chávez, a former army paratrooper and coup plotter, ia a pivotal event in a country that has been roiled by protests since he first won election in 1998 promising to overturn the old social order, ease life for the poor and punish the corrupt elite the president's followers said plundered this country. But his leftist policies and sharp attacks on his political opponents have alienated Venezuelans who contend Mr. Chávez is taking Venezuela toward tyranny and ruin.

The results of the referendum mean that Mr. Chávez will finish the two years left of his term, which began with his re-election in 2000. Mr. Chávez's government pledged that it would continue with its so-called Bolivarian revolution, named for the hero of the country's independence wars, Simón Bolívar, purging elites from institutions and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into health and social programs.

Buoyed by high oil prices that have left Venezuela awash in cash this year, Mr. Chávez's government worked for victory by embarking on a $1.7 billion social spending program. It also spent handsomely on a campaign that frightened many Venezuelans into believing that a yes vote to recall Mr. Chávez would be a vote for American imperialism and the corrupt political parties that ruled this country in the past.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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