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Chávez Wins New Term in Venezuela, Holding Off Surge by Opposition
Oct. 8, 2012 — Caracas, Venezuela

Published by New York Times [PDF]

President Hugo Chávez, long a fiery foe of Washington, won re-election on Sunday, facing down cancer and the strongest electoral challenge of his nearly 14 years in office and gaining a new mandate to deepen his socialist revolution.

Though his margin of victory was much narrower than in past elections, he still won handily. With 90 percent of the votes tallied, Mr. Chávez received 54 percent, to 45 percent for his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the national election council said. Fireworks erupted in Caracas after the news, and Chávez supporters celebrated in the streets.

Shortly before 11:30 p.m. local time, Mr. Chávez stepped out onto the balcony of the presidential palace in Caracas and waved to a sea of jubilant supporters. “My words of recognition go out from here to all who voted against us, a recognition for their democratic temperament,” he said. A former soldier, he called the election a “perfect battle.”

Still, after a spirited campaign, the polarizing Mr. Chávez finds himself governing a changed country. He is an ailing and politically weakened winner facing an emboldened opposition that grew stronger and more confident as the voting neared, and held out hope that an upset victory was within reach.

Mr. Chávez has said that he would move forward even more aggressively to create his version of socialism in Venezuela in a new six-year term, although his pledges were short on specifics.

His health, though, remains a question mark. He has undergone several rounds of treatment for cancer in the last 15 months, but has refused to make public essential details of his illness. If he overcomes the disease and serves out his new term to its end in 2019, he will have been in power for two full decades.

Toward the end of the campaign, facing pressure from Mr. Capriles, he pledged to make his government more efficient and to pay more attention to the quality of government programs like education. He even made appeals for the middle class and the opposition to join in his revolution.

But Mr. Chávez spent much of the year insulting and trying to provoke Mr. Capriles and his followers. And on Sunday night, he had to face the fact that the people he taunted as squalid good-for-nothings, little Yankees and fascists, turned out to be nearly half the electorate.

As the opposition’s momentum grew, Mr. Chávez’s insults seemed to lose their sting. By the end of the campaign, young people in Caracas were wearing colorful T-shirts that said “majunche” or good-for-nothing, Mr. Chávez’s favorite taunt.

Mr. Capriles was subdued on Sunday night, congratulating Mr. Chávez and saying he hoped the president would see the result as “the expression today of a country with two visions, and to be president means working to solve the problems of all Venezuelans.”

He appeared poised to carry on his fight in the elections for state governors in December. “You should all feel proud, do not feel defeated,” he told supporters.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research institute in Washington, called the presidential election “a fundamental turning point.” He said Mr. Chávez was “going to have to deal with a very different society than he dealt with in his last term, a society that’s awakened and more organized and more confident.”

Even so, the opposition is a fragile coalition with a history of destructive infighting, especially after an election defeat. Mr. Capriles will have to keep this fractious amalgam of parties from the left, right and center together in order to take advantage of the new ground they have gained.

“The opposition has more power, it feels more support,” said Elsi Fernandes, a schoolteacher, who voted for Mr. Capriles on Sunday morning in Catia, a poor neighborhood in Caracas. “The difference is that we’re not going to stay with our arms crossed.”

The turnout was more than 80 percent, the highest in decades, the election council said. People stood in line for hours, although the voting appeared in most cases to run smoothly.

Venezuela uses a touch-screen electronic voting system, and voters are identified with a digital thumbprint reader; technical problems at some polling places caused long delays and, in some, a resort to backup paper ballots. Polling places were told to keep working until everyone in line at closing time had a chance to vote.

Venezuela is mired in problems, including out-of-control violent crime, crumbling roads and bridges, and power blackouts that regularly plague much of the country outside the capital. Oil production, the country’s mainstay, has plateaued in recent years, and other exports have not picked up the slack. The overall economy grew this year, largely because of a huge pre-election boost in government spending, but clouds loom. A devaluation of the Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, is widely seen as inevitable, and inflation remains stubbornly high.

Mr. Chávez has trumpeted his programs to help the poor, and has pointed to a sharp reduction in the number of people living in poverty. But he has governed during a phenomenal rise in oil prices, which have soared from $10 in 1998, the year before he took office, to more than $100 in recent years and the high $80s now, pouring huge amounts of revenue into Venezuela. Mr. Capriles, who has served as a legislator, mayor and governor, campaigned almost nonstop, seeking to contrast his energetic style with the reduced schedule of Mr. Chávez, who received a diagnosis of cancer in 2011.

Mr. Chávez has kept most details of his condition secret, refusing to say exactly what kind of cancer he has or where in his body it is. He received chemotherapy last summer after an operation to remove a tumor, but the cancer returned and he had another operation in February, followed by radiation therapy. The operations and treatments were performed in Cuba, taking Mr. Chávez out of Venezuela for extended periods.

His health, and whether he was well enough to serve a new six-year term, always loomed over the campaign, but it receded as an issue as Mr. Chávez gradually increased his public appearances. Still, he never threw himself into campaigning at the frenzied pace of Mr. Capriles.

Opposition to Mr. Chávez has long been divided and easily manipulated by Mr. Chávez, a master politician who kept his rivals off balance. Mr. Capriles changed that. He crisscrossed the country, campaigning in places long considered bastions of support for Mr. Chávez, including urban slums and poor rural areas. He told voters that he was the future and Mr. Chávez the past.

Mr. Chávez dismissed Mr. Capriles as an unworthy opponent, accusing him of lying about wanting to continue Mr. Chávez’s social programs. He called Mr. Capriles a right-wing oligarch in disguise who sought to bring back the bad old days of rule by the rich. In Catia, María Elena Severine, 59, who works as a cleaner in a bank, said that Mr. Chávez was still as fresh a candidate as when he first ran in 1998. She lives in a rental apartment but hopes someday to be given a new home government-built home.

“I like my president,” she said. “He is the revolution. He is change.”

Reporting was contributed by María Eugenia Díaz, Jonathan Gilbert, Girish Gupta and Andrew Rosati from Caracas, and María Iguarán from Cumaná, Sucre State.

Filed from
Caracas, Venezuela






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© Girish Gupta