“What I am clear about is that this is the last victory for Chavez,” said Romero, who had predicted Chavez’s victory in the election. “The cycle is closing.”
After coming to prominence in the 1990s after a failed attempt to seize power, Chavez, a former army paratrooper, won a series of elections: referendums that led to a new constitution and ended term limits and a vote that turned back a recall referendum in 2004.
But Chavez lost a 2007 referendum that would have given him a raft of new powers, and the opposition won more votes in elections staged in 2010 for lawmakers in the country’s National Assembly.
Venezuelans flooded polling stations Sunday, each side determined to choose between two starkly different candidates: one who offers a powerful state that nationalizes companies and spends freely on social programs with petrodollars and another who offered a more business-friendly government that would rebuild tattered relations with the United States.
“It’s not only about a president but about a whole political system — socialism or democratic, so it’s very important for us,” said David Fermin, 44, an economist who voted in a leafy upper-class neighborhood that was supportive of Capriles.
The president’s campaign, though, was disciplined and loyal, and well before dawn bugles sounded in the poor barrios that have come out for him in force many times. That got voters to the polls, where lines started to form before 5 a.m. for openings an hour later.
For those most fervent of followers, Chavez has been a leader like no other — he has spent heavily, using billions of dollars under his control to start small-scale social programs that provide everything from cheap food to basic medical care in the tumbledown barrios that carpet the hills of this and other cities.
Lilian Gonzalez, 60, who takes care of children, praised Chavez and said that the run-up to the election had been anguishing for her because she feared that the president would be defeated and that the country would “go back to the past.”
“Here, the poorest people now have meals three times a day,” she said, explaining one reason why she supported Chavez.
Chavez has long used his oratorical gifts and the oil money he controls through his office to cast himself as a father figure to the poor, creating a near-religious connection with his followers, one that has never been easy for the opposition to break.
In the campaign, he heaped scorn on Capriles, calling him everything from a “fascist” to a “mediocre bootlicker.”
“Who’s going to debate with you?” Chavez said in one recent speech, after Capriles challenged him to a debate. “Learn how to talk first.”
He argued that Capriles would represent the interests of the United States, not the poor, and that his government would slash popular social programs, a claim that Capriles had to repeatedly deny.
The attacks had an impact.
Javier Alejandro Piñango, 33, a delivery driver, said he didn’t trust Capriles, arguing that the contender had tried to fashion himself as a populist like Chavez.
“The other candidate has no proposal, he has no spark,” Piñango said as he cast his ballot in a poor neighborhood. “That is what I like about El Comandante and what he has done. He has changed things and has also awakened us. And the country is better.”
Capriles, noting the government’s heavy spending on the campaign and its overwhelming control of the airwaves, compared himself frequently to David and Chavez to Goliath. “David won over Goliath because he was not afraid,” Capriles told reporters recently. “The Venezuelan people are not afraid.”
But the argument did not sway Tailde Salazar, 45, a teacher who had been trained through a government program in the slum where she lives.
“Our hope, our leftist movement is in place with this revolution,” she said.