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  Populist Elected in Venezuela

Venezuela, Hugo Chavez
Populist candidate for president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, waves to supporters after voting in a school on the outskirts of Caracas on Sunday (Reuters)
By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 7, 1998; Page A19

Hugo Chavez, a radical populist and former paratroop who led a failed coup attempt six years ago, was elected president today in a landslide. His victory reflected the discontent among Venezuela's poor with the political establishment and created uncertainty about the future of the nation's 40-year-old democracy and Latin America's fourth-largest economy.

With 78 percent of returns counted, Chavez had received 56.4 percent of the ballots cast, compared with 39.5 percent for his challenger, Henrique Salas Romer, a Yale-educated economist and former state governor who was considered more moderate.

Chavez will succeed Rafael Caldera, 82, who was constitutionally prevented from seeking another five-year term.

"Venezuela is being born again," Chavez, 44, declared as soon as the election results were reported. As his supporters blared car horns and set off fireworks in the streets of this capital, he made an appeal for calm and vowed to pursue prudent economic policies.

Throughout the day, balloting was reported to be peaceful around the country, although security forces were placed on high alert.

"Once again the people of Simon Bolivar have shown themselves to be a grand people," Chavez, who frequently invokes the South American liberation hero in his speeches, told the Venevision television network.

Salas quickly conceded defeat, telling reporters: "I accept the victory of my adversary and wish him a lot of luck."

"Long live Chavez. The people have finally won something," said Jose Cortes, who is 26 and unemployed, as he ran down a street in central Caracas with a group of Chavez supporters waving a Venezuelan flag and wearing a red beret, a trademark of Chavez's followers.

Today's election marked the first time in four decades of democracy that Venezuela's two traditional parties -- Democratic Action and the Social Christian Party -- did not field a presidential candidate. Chavez's victory will reshape the nation's political landscape by ending four decades of domination by the two parties, which have been assailed for corruption, mismanagement of the country's oil wealth and catering to a small elite.

Chavez, who attempted to overthrow the democratically elected government of Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, drew his support largely from among Venezuela's poor majority, waging an anti-Establishment, anti-corruption platform that called for radical political and economic reforms. The former paratroop's campaign rhetoric was interpreted as critical of free-market economics -- and sometimes dictatorial -- at a time when the region has been embracing more liberal economic policies and greater democracy.

Chavez vowed to fire the head of the state-run oil company and proposed restricting the expansion of Venezuela's petroleum sector and foreign investment in the industry. Venezuela is the world's fifth-leading petroleum producer and is leading exporter of total oil products to the United States and the second-leading supplier of crude oil to U.S. markets after Saudi Arabia.

He also suggested declaring a moratorium on repaying the country's $22 billion foreign debt and vowed to create a constituent assembly that he said would be more representative of the people than the Venezuelan Congress and would root out government corruption.

In a wide-ranging news conference tonight, Chavez emphasized his agenda for political and economic change. But he also cautioned, "I don't think the Venezuelan people think that [Chavez] is a messiah and a type of magician who is going to . . . solve all the immense social, economic, political and moral problems that are weighing on this country."

Striking a conciliatory note, he added: "I say to the Venezuelan people, I don't consider anyone political enemies . . . I extend my hand to everyone."

But Chavez also paid homage to those who participated in two attempted coups in 1992. "With all my feeling and all my soul, I send greetings out to the rebel boys of Feb. 4 and Nov. 27," Chavez said. "Boys, it was all worth it . . . for your honor, for your sacrifice and for the honor of the nation we all love."

Chavez's opponent, Salas, considered more amenable to free-market principles, also tried to distance himself from the Establishment during the campaign, although the two major parties officially backed him last week after dumping their original choices in a desperate effort to head off Chavez.

"These are historic elections. Nothing like [them] has happened in Venezuela's political history," U.S. Ambassador John F. Maisto said before the vote. "No matter who wins, starting [this week] the issue is governability -- what they are going to do to make this country work. Venezuela has a competitive advantage over other Latin American countries because of oil, but they are not fully competitive in the non-oil trade sectors. Venezuela will continue to need investment."

The possibility of a Chavez presidency had already made many investors uneasy, prompting some to sit on the sidelines while awaiting the outcome of the election and others to pull out of the country outright.

Chavez must now contend with the deepest financial crisis Venezuela has faced in more than a decade. The government is strapped with a $5 billion budget deficit, and the economy has been battered by slumping oil prices, leading to the erosion of health care, education and social services. Inflation stands at 65 percent, and an estimated 75 percent of the nation's 23 million people live in poverty.

Among his core supporters, however, anxiety was not an issue. After casting his ballot for the winner, construction worker Alfredo Calderon exuberantly said: "Nobody here is afraid of 'El Comandante.' Everybody here is in favor of him because he is someone new -- the only one who can save us from 40 years of democracy that has not done anything."

The breadth of Chavez's popularity had been clear since November's legislative and gubernatorial elections in which the Patriotic Pole, the coalition that he heads, won 35 percent of the seats in Congress and 8 of 23 governorships, making it the dominant political force in the country and prompting the two main parties to back Salas.

Many of those who did not vote for Chavez said they were worried about his history of violence and distrustful of his promises, and concerned that as a political leader he is an unknown quantity. Others contended that Salas was less extreme and had more leadership experience.

"Chavez goes down to people very low in culture. He offers a series of things that are dreams. . . . but are not easy to deliver. For example, he said he is going to give them houses of the elites and cars from people who have more than them," said Gabriella Hoffman, 31, an administrator who voted for Salas. Chavez, she said, "will bring a new form of corruption. What is happening is that the people do not realize it. He knows how to sell himself well."

"This country is now on a road to disaster, not change in the better sense of the word. It really feels as if we are in the midst of a revolution," said Mauricio de Armas, 51, a physician. "My biggest fear is that everything is now up for grabs, democracy, our freedom and free enterprise. This shows a downside to democracy."

But Lisbebh Castellano, 18, a lottery worker, was firm in her conviction that Chavez is the best choice for Venezuela.

"He is the best alternative to the lack of character and principles of the government and things like the bad education and hunger that we have to face every day," she said as she left a voting station in the poor Caracas neighborhood of Carapita. "He is not the same as the old parties. We can put hope and trust in him."

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