By Jim Wyss, The Miami Herald –
CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez — the former soldier and Latin American socialist who has led this nation for almost 14 years — won an additional six-year term Sunday night.
Chavez won 54.42 percent of the vote against former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, the National Election Council, or CNE, reported.
As the results were announced the skies of Caracas lighted up with red fireworks and crowds began to gather at the Miraflores presidential palace.
Authorities said turnout for the vote was 80.94 percent — a decades-long record for this oil-rich nation.
“We have written another brilliant page in our democratic history,” CNE President Tibisay Lucena said.
The results capped a day where many of the country’s 19 million registered voters swarmed the polls in a process that was largely free of violence despite the incendiary rhetoric that marked the race.
Chavez, 58, has been in power since 1999 and used the nation’s oil wealth to promote socialist reforms and welfare programs that have made him a hero to the poor. He said he would use the additional six years to deepen his “21st Century Socialism” to build more public housing, end unemployment and create 10 new public universities.
Capriles, 40, had pledged to bridge the country’s deep ideological divides and roll out Brazilian-style reforms that would jump-start the economy without leaving the poor behind.
Wearing a long-sleeve blue shirt, Chavez cast his vote in the working-class 23 de Enero neighborhood surrounded by family, Cabinet members and international celebrities, including Hollywood’s Danny Glover and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala.
Amid speculation that Chavez might be reluctant to hand over power, the leader vowed early in the day to respect the outcome.
“Whether it’s a one-vote difference or 3 million votes, the responsible political actors must recognize the results,” he said. “Also, this is an electoral system that is absolutely transparent.”
Minutes later, Capriles cast his vote in the municipality of Baruta, where he was once mayor.
After pushing through a crowd of supporters and showing reporters his “lucky shoes” that have helped him win four consecutive elections, he also vowed to play by the rules.
“What the people say today is a sacred word,” Capriles said. “To know how to win, you also have to know how to lose.”
The words seemed to have a calming effect on a nation that often fretted that either side might not accept defeat. In the waning days of the campaign, Chavez had gone as far as to suggest that if he were to lose, it might spark a civil war.
Carolina Haskour, 41, was wearing a shirt that read “You snooze you lose” and waiting at the Baruta polling station hoping to catch a glimpse of Capriles.
She said she voted for the former mayor, governor and legislator because she’s tired of the nation’s political polarization and soaring crime rate.
“I want the country to be what it was before,” she said. “There’s so much hate now. I want a country where we don’t fight with each other just because we have different political views.”
But others still see Chavez as the only person willing to fight for them.
“I am 82 years old and I can tell you we’ve never had a president as good as this,” said Maria Pinzon, who lives in Antimano. “He’s made mistakes, but there’s no one else like him.”
On the campaign trail, Chavez highlighted his social programs and presented himself in his motto and jingles as the “heart of the nation.”
If that’s the case, then “I voted for a heart transplant,” said Jorge San Martin, a 48-year-old computer engineer. San Martin said he had to wait three hours due to voting-machine failures in his neighborhood, La Florida.
For many, the day kicked off at 3 a.m. when fireworks began popping over Caracas, followed later by sound trucks playing reveille. Chavez had told supporters to rise early to assure his victory before noon.
At several voting centers, groups of pro-government motorcycle drivers, known as motorizados, honked their horns and popped wheelies. Many feared these groups might stir up trouble or disrupt the vote.
But as of 7 p.m., Gen. Wilmer Barrientos, who is in charge of election security, said it was a largely peaceful event with no major incidents to report.
Even so, Capriles campaign officials asked the military to control the gangs Sunday night.
“Please restrict these bands of motorcyclists,” Capriles’ campaign manager Armando Briquet, the campaign manager, asked the military, “because we want a night that was like our day — peaceful.”
At a polling station in Caricuao, a group of Chavez supporters huddled under a red tent and kept a list of everyone in their community who had voted. The effort is part of the administration’s plan to minimize abstention, which tends to hurt the ruling party.
“We’re seeing a massive turnout,” said Tania Pena, one of the organizers. “We’re here because we want socialism, equality and all the social missions.”
At the technical school where Chavez cast his vote, the walls are covered in pictures of the young president and Karl Marx. It also has a quote from Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar scrawled on one wall that might apply to either candidate.
“You can lose all of the battles,” it reads, “except for the last one.”