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Chavez Defeats Recall Attempt

Venezuela, which holds the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, is the No. 4 supplier of crude to the United States. World oil markets have been occasionally rattled by the unrest that has wracked this country in recent years, including a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez. A three-month general strike ending in February 2003 crippled the country's oil industry, the pillar of the economy.

Oil prices on the New York Mercantile Exchange reached a record high of $46.91 per barrel for U.S. light crude on Monday. But the price slipped to $46.30 after the report of Chavez's victory.


Venezuelans protest outside a hotel in Caracas. Members of the opposition alleged voter fraud and refused to accept President Hugo Chavez's victory. (Dario Lopez-mills -- AP)

_____World Opinion_____
Chavez, Poor Man's Survivor: post.com's Jefferson Morley mines foreign press for views on the recall referendum vote.
Discussion Transcript
_____Road to Recall_____
Timeline: Events in Venezuela that led to the recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez.
_____From Venezuela_____
Video: Footage From Venezuela (The Associated Press, Aug 16, 2004)
Turnout Massive In Venezuela's Vote on Chavez (The Washington Post, Aug 16, 2004)
Chavez Upbeat Before Historic Vote to Oust Him (The Washington Post, Aug 13, 2004)
Building Loyalty and a Legacy (The Washington Post, Aug 12, 2004)
More News
_____Desde Washington_____
Discreet Charm of the Status Quo: In Venezuela, citizens are caught between the benefits and perils of both change and stability.
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Venezuela has traditionally been a U.S. ally, but the relationship has soured as Chavez has condemned the Bush administration's policies on issues such as Afghanistan and free trade.

Yamira Leon, 27, a street vendor, was one of thousands of people who celebrated Chavez's victory on Monday.

"This is the best thing that could have happened. Before, we poor people didn't count. Now we're a majority," said Leon, who was watching red-shirted Chavez supporters blow whistles and wave Venezuelan flags outside the downtown presidential palace.

The opposition coalition received the results with disbelief, saying that its exit polls had predicted Chavez would suffer a stinging defeat in the recall.

"One result doesn't match the other," said Alberto Quiros, a spokesman for the coalition known as the Democratic Coordinator. He and other opposition leaders said they wanted a manual recount of the votes.

"We can't say to Venezuelans who came out to vote in massive numbers and who are being robbed of a huge victory that we are going to think for 24 hours," said opposition leader Antonio Ledezma. "We have to take to the streets."

Opposition supporters held small demonstrations in Caracas in the afternoon, yelling "Fraud!" and waving signs denouncing the results.

But analysts said the opposition would eventually have little option but to accept the results because the international monitors endorsed the process.

"With this, they are isolated," said Margarita Lopez, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela. "It would be political suicide to try to maintain this attitude."

Already, she said, some political parties and business executives have indicated they want to open talks with the government.

Many analysts said Chavez's victory had as much to do with the opposition's weakness as his strengths. As a loose-knit group, including conservative businessmen and former communist guerrillas, the coalition lacked effective leadership and a concrete program to convince voters, analysts said.

Chavez was also a formidable opponent. He has remained in power despite opposition from the United States and nearly every powerful group in Venezuela -- business leaders, oil workers, media executives, the Catholic Church and labor unions.

In the past year, the president has used the country's windfall from record oil prices to boost his popularity, funding a broad network of literacy programs, subsidized food stores and medical clinics in poor neighborhoods. He has welcomed hundreds of Cuban doctors and sports trainers to work in such programs.

A master communicator, Chavez has convinced many voters that the country's overall woeful economic performance during his presidency is the fault of opposition leaders associated with past politicians who are still reviled for their alleged corruption.

"There's no other politician in Venezuelan history, and no other politician in Latin America, who has been as skillful and effective," said Moises Naim, a Venezuelan-born economist who is editor of the journal Foreign Policy and has been a Chavez critic. "The tragedy is he has a blank check in many ways."

In fact, many of the president's detractors worry that a strengthened Chavez could tighten his grip on more of the country's institutions, as he has done with the judiciary, the military and the state-run oil company. He has concentrated power in the presidency, partly through public referendums.

Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said the Venezuelan leader had enough money to aid like-minded movements in the hemisphere, but said he doubted the Chavez effect would catch on.

"Most people in Latin America recognize that his record has been pretty bad as president of Venezuela," he said. "I don't think this is the new hope, or the new way."

U.S. officials have expressed concern that Chavez could be emboldened to step up his activism in Latin America, where he has embraced anti-American groups in El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries. Chavez has denied any interest in exporting his policies.


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