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Venezuela's Chávez Wins Decisive Victory

The Chávez victory further consolidates the tide of leftist politicians who have won office in Latin America in recent years, including a former labor leader in Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; Michelle Bachelet, a market-friendly socialist in Chile; and Evo Morales, the indigenous leader of Bolivia. Although Colombia, Peru and Mexico this year elected pro-trade, pro-U.S. presidents, leftist leaders who criticize market reforms and sharply question the Bush administration's policies in the region were elected last month in Nicaragua and Ecuador.

But Venezuela's government is the most defiantly anti-Bush, with Chávez making theatrical accusations about U.S. designs on Venezuela's oil deposits, even though many of the biggest producers here are American multinationals.

Chávez's government will ensure that Venezuela, which says it has the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, remains a price hawk in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The president has also said he would solidify Venezuela's relations with Cuba and Iran, countries the Bush administration is working to isolate. Chávez, who survived a 2002 coup that the White House tacitly endorsed, often accuses Washington of backing undemocratic opposition groups.

"This is another defeat for the devil," Chávez said, referring to Bush with a term he used to describe his U.S. counterpart at the United Nations in September. "Venezuela has independence. Venezuela is free. Venezuela will never be a North American colony."

With bugles and fireworks awakening voters across Caracas and beyond early Sunday morning, Venezuelans flocked to 32,000 voting booths guarded by 125,000 soldiers and reservists. Chávez drove himself in a red Volkswagen Beetle to cast his ballot at the 23rd of January housing development, not far from the presidential palace.

"I feel very happy, very happy," he said. He added that with this election, he has faced off and defeated his opponents four times, including his first win in 1998, an election in 2000 after the constitution was changed to permit him to be elected to a six-year term, and the 2004 recall that left his foes demoralized.

With oil prices having reached historic highs, and Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement in control of the National Assembly and other institutions, the government has funneled billions of dollars into education, health and nutrition programs. Venezuela's economy has been roaring, growing at 18 percent in 2004 and 9.3 percent last year.

Although private investment has dwindled and half of Venezuelans work in the black market, the government's spending has put money in banks and in people's pockets. Business sectors dependent upon government contracts are booming, and the stock index on Friday had its biggest increase in nearly four years on the strength of the belief that Chávez would win.

In a recent opinion poll conducted by Ipsos for the Associated Press, 66 percent of respondents said they approved of Chávez's administration. The poll showed that although most Venezuelans see Chávez as authoritarian, they also overwhelmingly approve of his social policies, which have given a voice to a vast underclass that had felt forgotten under previous governments.

In Caño Amarillo, a working-class neighborhood near downtown Caracas, several people said they voted for the president, overlooking concerns they had about crime and his combative style.

"I think the president has done what he said he would do," said Jose Medina, 54, a schoolteacher. "He's put the social policies above everything else."

Another voter, Pedro Fiaggio, 76, summed up his support for Chávez by rattling off the programs that benefit him and his wife, Lesbia, 62 -- a healthy pension, subsidized food and educational programs for seniors. He said the opposition would never have offered the same.

"They are people who are always out for their own self-interest," he said. "We didn't have a real vote with them."

The opposition, which has suffered a series of setbacks since the coup, had hoped to appeal to voters by focusing on issues such as spiraling crime, alleged corruption and unchecked spending. Rosales, governor of Zulia state, the historic heart of Venezuela's oil industry, had proposed a populist handout program to cut into Chávez 's support base.

"The future of Venezuela is at stake," Rosales told supporters as he cast his ballot.

There were, to be sure, millions of Venezuelans who agreed that a change was needed. "We've had eight years without work, nothing stable," said Victor Castellanos, 53, a construction worker.

Another voter, Marco Ravelo, 39, a cabdriver, said he was tired of Chávez's obsession with the Bush administration, as well as the government's generous outlay of aid to poor countries. "We need better relations with other countries," he said. "Chávez divides countries. He gives away all this oil, and we still have poverty and misery here."

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