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Turnout Massive In Venezuela's Vote on Chavez

"We want to vote! We want to vote!" chanted citizens at polling stations in Caracas and other cities.

Former president Jimmy Carter, who led a team of international observers, said there were no major problems. The balloting was mostly peaceful, except for an incident in Caracas in which a gunman opened fire on voters, killing a 28-year-old woman and injuring 12 others, news services reported.


Hundreds of Venezuelans line up to cast their ballots on whether to keep the country's populist president, Hugo Chavez, in power.

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The opposition coalition collected more than 2 million petition signatures to trigger the recall vote two years before the end of Chavez's term. Under the terms of Venezuela's constitution, the opposition needs to surpass the 3.76 million votes Chavez received in his 2000 reelection in order to oust him from office. About 14 million people are registered to vote in the country.

The opposition also had to outpoll the millions of Chavez supporters who flocked to the polls Sunday, eager to retain a president who has used the country's soaring oil revenue to provide health, education and food programs for the nation's poor majority.

William Sutherland, 40, a university student, was among those who rose before dawn and stood in line for hours under a punishing sun to back Chavez.

"He's the only president who has paid attention to all Venezuelans," said Sutherland, dressed in a T-shirt depicting revolutionary hero Che Guevara.

Venezuela was blanketed with red "No" posters opposing the recall, and Chavez's well-organized supporters turned out with whistles and red shirts. However, Chavez's popularity has clearly diminished since he was first elected, during years of severe economic recession linked to the country's political instability.

Carmen Diaz, 43, an office worker voting in the same working-class neighborhood as Sutherland, said she wanted to recall the president because of high unemployment and what she called frightening levels of crime. "We have to get rid of this guy. Every day we're worse off," she said.

Chavez burst onto the national scene in 1992 when he launched an unsuccessful coup. Six years later, he won office in a landslide victory and set out to remake the country, charging that its then 40-year-old democracy was a sham benefiting only the "rancid oligarchy."

Chavez launched a self-declared "revolution" that included a new constitution and the use of soldiers to carry out social projects in poor areas. But his overtures to Cuba, and his concentration of power in the presidency, achieved in part through referendums, alarmed the country's business elite and middle class.

Violence has erupted periodically, with 19 people killed in an anti-Chavez protest shortly before the 2002 coup, and 12 people slain during anti-government riots in March. The coup, and a three-month general strike launched by the opposition in December 2002, have contributed to a sharp decline in the economy.

Economic growth in Venezuela has picked up this year, thanks to a 43 percent rise in world oil prices. While many Venezuelan businessmen are ardent foes of Chavez, he still enjoys support from some international investors, particularly in the oil sector. They had expressed hope that the president would defeat the recall, fearing that fresh elections that would be triggered by a successful recall would only produce more turmoil.


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