News Americas

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Hugo Chavez wins re-election bid in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waves the national flag while celebrating from a balcony at Miraflores Palace in Caracas. Photo: Reuters
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waves the national flag while celebrating from a balcony at Miraflores Palace in Caracas. Photo: Reuters

HUGO Chávez, Venezuela's firebrand leader, extended his 14-year grip on power last night after seeing off challenger Henrique Capriles in close-run elections.

Chávez, a socialist whose so-called Bolivarian Revolution places him in firm opposition to the USA, won with 54 per cent of the vote.

With 90 per cent of around 15 million ballot papers counted, Venezuela's electoral council announced Chávez's victory at 10 pm on Sunday night.

Capriles, who was expected to dramatically alter foreign policy and open Venezuela up to private enterprise should he have won, claimed 44 per cent.

He had managed to steal away some of the traditional base of chavismo, poor Venezuelans who live in urban shanty towns.

But Chávez – accused of authoritarianism for his subordination of the judiciary and legislature – prevailed with 7.4 million votes.

He will lead Venezuela, which has the world's biggest oil reserves, for another six years.

The Chávez administration has reduced poverty from 60 to 27 per cent, according to government figures, and invested around $300 billion on ‘missions’ – mass housing, healthcare and education schemes.

The comandante, the name by which Chávez is popularly known, has promised he will deepen his socialist revolution and end poverty during his next term.

His victory triggered delirious scenes in central Caracas, which filled with flag-waving, red-clad Chávez supporters on motorbikes and in trucks.

They let off gun shots and even targeted the electoral council building, with journalists and security fleeing in a panic.

"We'll always support the comandante," said Gonzalo Pérez, 29, who voted for Chávez.

Making a speech from Miraflores, the presidential palace, Chávez thanked hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans gathered outside.

"Long live the revolution," he proclaimed. "Long live the 7th October."

Chávez, who rose to power in 1998 and won a referendum to remove term limits in 2009, had enjoyed winning margins of at least 22 per cent in previous elections.

Despite losing, Capriles, who united the opposition, has shown a significant amount of Venezuelans are dismayed by the president's revolution.

Many Venezuelans felt that 14 years was enough.

"We're tired of Chávez," said Javier García, a 19-year-old student. "I want to leave the country now and I think many others will, too."

Venezuela suffers from high inflation, which reached almost 28 per cent last year, blackouts are common and infrastructure is decaying. Caracas, meanwhile, has a murder rate comparable with Baghdad.

Voters starting queuing at 5 am in the capital with unprecedented queues at polling stations.

At one in the chavista stronghold of 23 de enero, around 500 people were already waiting by 8.30 am. But the vote, which was entirely electronic, went smoothly.

Populist Chávez, who enjoys a close relationship with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba's Fidel Castro, is expected to consolidate state control over Venezuela's economy and continue backing anti-Washington administrations.

He has recently suffered from bouts of cancer, however, a condition which is rumoured to be terminal.

But celebrating in Caracas' Plaza O'Leary last night, one chavista said: "We want Chávez to reign forever."

Jonathan Gilbert in Caracas,

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