"The will of the people"

Venezuelan President Ch

By Dan Glaister
Published August 17, 2004 12:02PM (EDT)

After a hard night of celebration, which saw bands of supporters of President Hugo Chávez traversing the capital in pickup trucks and cars, beeping horns and waving red flags, many Venezuelans simply wanted to get home.

"Look at my eyes," said Sosscún Niño, one of a small crowd reading the headlines at a newspaper kiosk in central Caracas. "I've been up all night waiting for the result. Now I'm going home."

Niño had been at the Miraflores Palace, Chávez's official residence, to hear the 50-year-old president claim victory in the referendum on whether he should be recalled -- sacked. "This was spectacular. There's no other word for it -- spectacular," he said. "You have to be a little cautious, but this was a sincere expression of the will of the people. It was magnificent."

Dressed in a bedraggled red T-shirt bearing the "no" slogan of the Chávez campaign, José Tuarez Serpa was hopping with excitement. "This shows those bastards," he said. "This was a day for the country, for peace." Chávez's victory speech, he said, was "fantastic ... beautiful."

In the predawn darkness, Chávez, wiping tears from his face, promised a cheering mass of supporters gathered in light rain: "Starting today Venezuela enters a new phase. Venezuela has changed for ever. There is no going back."

"I have been subjected to the evaluation of the people and, as I have passed the exam, I intend to dedicate myself to my work with even greater determination. This has given me an unprecedented strength to carry on fighting for the country for the rest of my life," Chávez said.

He sent a message to the U.S. government, which he has accused of interfering in Venezuela's internal affairs. "The ball has landed in the center of the White House," he said in a reference to a metaphor he had used in the campaign, when he said the result would be like a baseball being hit all the way to Washington. "Let's hope that this victory permits the government of the U.S. to respect the government and people of Venezuela."

In the few hours between the closing of the polling stations at midnight on Sunday and the announcement of the referendum result, Chávez supporters began to circulate through Caracas. Trucks laden with Chávistas descended from working-class suburbs, preparing for the lengthy celebrations to come.

Army reserves, called up to reinforce security at polling stations, sped across the city in lorries, and several armored cars traveled down the city's main thoroughfare. Not far away, a group of 20 police motorcyclists cruised along, the riders with shotguns strapped to their backs.

Last night as rival supporters took to the streets, some violent incidents erupted. In the most serious, shots were fired at a group of opposition supporters. Several people were wounded and taken to the hospital.

After an extended day of voting, with most polling stations opening at 6 a.m. on Sunday and not closing until midnight, the national electoral council released its preliminary count at 4 a.m. Monday. With 94.4 percent of the votes counted, 4.9 million (58.25 percent) had been cast in favor of not recalling Chávez, it said, while the opposition campaign garnered 3.5 million votes (41.74 percent).

The tally came as something of a surprise. During the vote, people linked to the government had been more circumspect, suggesting a winning margin in single figures, while opposition sources had claimed to be leading by at least 10 percent.

The turnout figures were also surprising. Despite the lengthy queues and the extended voting period, the total turnout was just over 8.5 million out of 14 million registered voters. This fell far short of the 80 percent figure that had been suggested during the referendum, although it was the largest vote the country has known, beating the previous record of 7.5 million ballots cast in the 1988 presidential election.

While President Chávez celebrated, opposition leaders alleged electoral fraud. The two opposition members of the five-member electoral council distanced themselves from the official result, saying that they had not been given access to the count and that the paper ballots had still not been counted. With a few exceptions, the referendum was an electronic vote, which meant there was no paper count in the traditional manner.

Horacio Medina, a former president of the Unapetrol oil company and a member of the opposition umbrella group Democratic Coordinator, said: "We are the victims of a mega-fraud. The 'yes' vote won the referendum with 60 percent of the vote."

Some anomalies over the vote, including the low number of votes cast for the opposition, may reflect more on the validity of past votes than on the referendum, said Gregory Wilpert, an associate editor of Venezuelanalysis.com, a Caracas-based Web site. "The vote of 3.5 million for the opposition suggests they never reached the 3.8 million signatures they claimed when calling for the referendum, and that the electoral council was perhaps right at the time to suggest that many of those signatures were fraudulent," he said.

The dispute over the validity of the vote, coupled with the distrust felt by many Venezuelans for official institutions, placed an enormous emphasis on the findings of international observers, led by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter urged "all Venezuelans to accept the results and work together for the future." "Our findings coincided with the partial returns announced today by the national elections council," he said. César Gaviria for the OAS said observers had "not found any element of fraud in the process." He said the OAS was willing to listen to opposition concerns, "but not to put the results in doubt."

Despite the tension in official quarters and the unrest last night provoked by opposition protests, most of Caracas went about its business as normal yesterday.

"It's good that we won, but I don't like this triumphalism," said one roadside stall holder who preferred not to give his name. "Now we should settle down and get back to life as normal. It's time for us all to get back to work."

Outside a deserted polling station in the center of the city two weary soldiers were standing at 8 a.m. "No, we're not guarding anything," they said. "We're just waiting for someone to come and take us home."

Dan Glaister

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